Luther Burbank was an American horticulturalist who devoted much of his life to increasing the world's food supply by developing tastier and hardier varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains.
Those efforts more than a century ago not only helped California become the agricultural giant it is today but also led to the enormous array of choice found in almost every supermarket produce section. And, although they may not know it, billions around the world enjoy the fruits of his research every day: The Russet Burbank potato, a variety of his original Burbank, is one of the major potatoes used for french fries by McDonald's.
And it was from the Burbank potato, "that lucky spud," to quote Chicagoan Jane S. Smith, a Burbank biographer, that the young gardener obtained the literal seed money — $150 — to move in 1875 from his native Massachusetts to California's Sonoma Valley and continue his experiments to breed better plants and, so he hoped, grow his own fortune.
Until his death in 1926 at age 77, Burbank kept at it, developing more than 800 new varieties of plants, both for food and ornamental use. His list of credits include dozens of plum varieties, elephant garlic, a giant hybrid artichoke, the plumcot (a cross between a plum and an apricot), the Royal walnut, the July Elberta peach, a white blackberry, rainbow chard and the Shasta daisy.
"He wanted to create better, more nourishing and tasty food and more beautiful flowers," says Dee Blackman, a board member for the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens Association, which maintains Burbank's original home as a park and museum in Santa Rosa, Calif. "He had an amazing sense of intuition about what to look for."
At a time when Charles Darwin's evolutionary theories were still new, when cross-breeding and the process of selection — natural or manmade — were poorly grasped, "Burbank's genius was that he understood what he was doing," says Smith, author of "The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants" and adjunct history professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "He had the visionary ambition to do it on a large scale and the patience to wait the 10, 15 or 20 years to develop something very good."
What "very good" meant in terms of food a century ago was in many ways different than now. People ate locally and seasonally, true, but there was little romance in it, especially in the lean months of winter and early spring. Only the rich could afford to eat an array of fresh vegetables or fruits then, as Smith notes. Everyone else had to make do with an extremely limited choice of winter-hardy vegetables and foods that were dried or pickled or tinned. It was only with the advances in shipping spawned by the Industrial Age, notably the railroads, that fresh foods from far away could be brought to northern climes quickly and at a relatively reasonable price. That great taste might be sacrificed for easier shipping was accepted then.
"It may have not been the best tomato, but it was better than no tomato," Smith says. "People were excited to have fresh fruits and vegetables in winter."
Burbank and his compatriots gave people what they hungered for: "Supplementing known varieties of just about every kind of plant with new ones that looked better, lasted longer, grew more lushly, tasted sweeter, could be shipped farther, and could be afforded by every consumer," or so Smith described it in her book.
That Burbank was not a trained scientist or an academic made the public love the "Wizard of Santa Rosa" even more.
"He was seen as a great, good man who did good things for the world," says Peter Dreyer, the Charlottesville, Va.-based author of "A Gardener Touched With Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank." "In a way, he was an amateur who succeeded."
Burbank, Dreyer added, was not only a "great" plant breeder but possibly the "most productive" plant breeder of all.
Yet, Smith says Burbank intrinsically respected nature. Though he was willing to help it along — he called himself an "accelerator of nature," she says — he also epitomized patience and a "let nature take its course" philosophy.
"Burbank saw himself as assisting evolution," she says.