Do you love potatoes, plums, peaches, nectarines? You have Luther Burbank to thank! Luther Burbank (March 7-1849 to April 11, 1926) was a horticulturist, botanist and plant breeder that developed more than 800 varieties of fruits, flowers, vegetables, grains and grasses. His most successful varieties include the Russet Burbank potato, ‘Santa Rosa’ and ‘Wickson’ plums, ‘July Elberta’ peach, ‘Flaming Gold’ nectarine, Shasta daisy and Fire Poppy.
Luther Burbank was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts, the 13th of 18 children. He grew up on a farm and received only a high school education. His father died when he was 21 years old and he used his inheritance to purchase a 17 acre plot of land. It was there that he developed the Burbank potato. In 1875 he sold the rights to the Burbank potato for $150 and used the money to travel to Santa Rosa, California. In Santa Rosa, he purchased a 4 acre plot of land and built a greenhouse, nursery and experimental fields to conduct cross-breeding experiments on plants. This property is open to the public.
He later purchased an 18 acre plot of land in nearby Sebastopol to expand his operations.
Burbank was a successful nurseryman but not a very good businessman. He sold much of his stock through plant catalogues, and happy customers also sent business his way, but his sales barely financed his experiments and cost of living.
Clarence Stark heard of his work and travelled to California to seek him out. In return for a $9,000 infusion of capital, Burbank gave Stark three of the fruits that he had developed. In addition, Stark started a Luther Burbank Society, a group that published his discoveries and helped him manage his financial affairs. This started a relationship that would be mutually profitable for Burbank and Stark Brothers Nursery and Orchards even after Burbank’s death.
While Burbank rarely left his home in Santa Rosa, he was often visited by businessmen, intellectuals and politicians, and was a darling of the press. He always made himself available to grant interviews and conduct tours.
While he was sometimes criticized by scientists because he didn’t keep the type of records that would qualify as scientific research, he was more interested in getting results. Because plants didn’t qualify for patent protection, scholars speculate that he may have been protecting his interests. In any event, whatever he was doing worked because he is credited with the development of 262 varieties of fruit alone.
There are several biographies written about Burbank and his life and work is a very interesting read. It’s also a worthwhile trip to visit the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa, California. Knowledgeable docents give informative tours of the house and gardens and it’s exhilarating to visit where a great man once lived. The public tour season is April through October and you can drop in anytime between 10:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Adult tickets are $10.00. Group Tours are available with advance reservations.