Breeding

Luther Burbank, potatoes and You

Luther Burbank was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts, on March 7, 1849. He was an American botanist, horticulturist and a pioneer in agricultural science. You may think that you do not have a connection to Luther Burbank, but you might be interested in learning that you do through a variety of his discoveries.

Luther Burbank was the 13th of 18 children, and he enjoyed the plants in his mother’s large garden. Brought up on a farm, he received only an elementary education. His father died when he was 21, and Burbank used his small inheritance to buy a 17-acre plot of land near Lunenburg.

Wanting to improve the common Irish potato, Burbank grew and observed 23 potato seedlings from an Early Rose parent. One seedling produced two to three times more tubers of a larger size than any other.

His potato was introduced to Ireland to combat the blight epidemic. Burbank cultivated the strain and marketed the Burbank potato to farmers in the U.S. in 1871.

Then he sold the rights to the Burbank potato for $150 (back then it was a lot of money) and used the money to travel to Santa Rosa, California. Later, a natural genetic variant of the Burbank potato with russet-colored skin later became known as the Russet Burbank potato or the Idaho potato.

This large, brown-skinned, white-fleshed potato has become the world’s predominant potato in food processing.

Today, the Russet Burbank potato is the most widely cultivated potato in the United States. A large percentage of McDonald’s French fries are made from this cultivar.

Burbank developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, including 113 varieties of plums and prunes, 10 varieties of berries, 50 varieties of lilies, many vegetables, nuts and grains and hundreds of ornamental flowers to name a few. His most successful strains and varieties include the Shasta daisy, the Fire poppy, the July Elberta peach, the Santa Rosa plum, the Flaming Gold nectarine, the Wickson plum, the Freestone peach, the white blackberry and the Burbank potato.

Burbank carried on his plant hybridization and selection on a huge scale. At any one time he maintained as many as 3,000 experiments involving millions of plants. His objective was to improve the quality of plants and thereby increase the world’s food supply.

In mid-March 1926, Burbank suffered a heart attack and became ill. He died April 11, 1926, at age 77, and is buried near the greenhouse at the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens.

Burbank’s work spurred the passage of the 1930 Plant Patent Act four years after his death. The legislation made it possible to patent new varieties of plants (excluding tuber-propagated plants). This legislation resulted from the growing awareness that plant breeders had no financial incentive to enter plant breeding because they could not exercise control over their discoveries.

In 1986, Burbank was inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The Luther Burbank Home and Garden, in downtown Santa Rosa, are now designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Read the full story in the Journal