March 7th marks the 167th anniversary of the birth of famed American botanist and horticulturalist Luther Burbank (March 7th, 1849 – April 11th, 1926). Burbank’s birthday coincides with California’s Arbor Week. This is no accident: the State Legislature connected the two events in 2011, writing:
“WHEREAS, In California, we also observe Arbor Day starting on the birthday of Luther Burbank, a famed California horticulturalist whose life’s labor produced hundreds of plants and trees that have contributed to the natural splendor and food production in our state…”
While Burbank wasn’t actually a California native, he lived in the Golden State for about fifty years. Sometimes called the “Plant Wizard,” Burbank was born in Massachusetts, the 13th of eighteen children. He grew up on farms near Lancaster and later, Groton. Burbank had a basic education and was not formally trained as a scientist, but displayed an extraordinary intelligence and sense of innovation at a young age. His success was based in part on his keen intellect, an extraordinary ability to observe, and persistence. After leaving Massachusetts (using money he received for rights to the Burbank potato), he lived and worked in California. He called Sonoma County home, living in Santa Rosa and working at Gold Ridge Farm in Sebastopol, where he conducted many of his research trials.
Burbank’s work was influenced by Charles Darwin’s Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. His contributions to agriculture cannot be understated: in his lifetime, he developed more than 800 varieties of fruits, vegetables, grain crops and ornamental plants (including the Shasta daisy). He created one variety of almond, plums, pears, prunes, peaches, blackberries, raspberries, potatoes, tomatoes and ornamentals (including a spineless cactus). This nifty piece by Joy Lanzendorfer for Mental Floss lists ten of Burbank’s “crazy creations.”
His work in developing pest and disease resistant varieties – including the Burbank potato, which ended fears of the potato blight – revolutionized agriculture. Burbank was so well-known and so highly regarded in the United States that a postage stamp bearing his image was commissioned in 1940. Schools, communities and even a bank are named after him.
Like other leaders in the modern horticulture movement (including colleague Liberty Hyde Bailey), Burbank was very interested in connecting children with nature and teaching them to grow things. He felt it vital that America’s children have some degree of literacy about agriculture. At the outset of World War I, Burbank lent his support to the work of the National War Garden Commission, a private-public partnership that organized the Liberty Garden – later Victory Garden – program. Burbank also lent his support to the U.S. School Garden Army, a World War I program that encouraged urban and suburban youth to garden in schools, at their homes and in their community.
He expressed his concern about what he viewed as the neglect of agricultural education in America, saying,
“Agriculture and horticulture had not generally been taught in the schools; the old hit-or-miss plan of farming was all too common; the home garden was neglected and the school garden a novelty.”
The advocacy of Burbank and other Progressive leaders helped the Victory Garden program gain entry to public schools through the School Garden Army during World War I. This marked one of the first federal efforts to influence the curriculum and activities of American school children on a national basis.
Burbank was a renaissance man and achieved fame in his lifetime. For a contemporary’s account of his life, you might want to glance at this 1915 biography authored by Henry Smith Williams. In 2013, the American Society for Horticulture Science sponsored a workshop to celebrate Burbank’s extraordinary life and career accomplishments; a number of papers about Burbank’s life and accomplishments were presented. Part of the society’s intent was “…to emphasize the role of artistry and horticulture in plant breeding.” In 2015, those conference papers were organized into an online collection, which is absolutely worth a read. In 1982, Lisa Bush wrote an excellent history of Burbank and the impact of his work for Pacific Horticulture. For those who might want to delve further, the Library of Congress has a large collection of Burbank’s papers. The home, greenhouse and gardens where Luther Burbank did much of his work is now a unique city park (and a registered national, state and city landmark). Learn more here.
This week, in Burbank’s honor, I’ll be planting something for the future.
Have a great day!