Luther Burbank

American botanist and horticulturist (1849–1926)

Luther Burbank (March 7, 1849 – April 11, 1926) was an American botanist, horticulturist and pioneer in agricultural science. He developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants over his 55-year career. Burbank's varied creations included fruits, flowers, grains, grasses, and vegetables.

Luther Burbank
Cabin at Sebastopol


It is the influence of cultivation, of selection, of surroundings, of environment, that makes the change from the abnormal to the normal.
  • Those who are making history seldom have time to record it.
    • A Word to the Reader, (July 1, 1920) How Plants are Trained to Work for Man: Plant breeding (1921) Vol. 1.

How Plants are Trained to Work for Man (1921) Vol. 1 Plant Breeding

As quoted by David Starr Jordan, Prefatory Note (July 5, 1921) unless otherwise noted.
  • Nature has time without limit, but man has immediate need for better and still better food, houses and clothing, and our present state of civilization depends largely upon the improvements of plants and animals which have consciously and half-consciously been made by man, and future civilization must more and more depend upon scientific efforts to this end.
  • A knowledge of Mendelism is recognized by me as only the ABC to the broader knowledge of heredity necessary for success in animal and plant improvement, and all variations and all mutations of every nature are responses to environment which, by repetition and combination, are slowly but surely fixed in heredity and at last made tangible, most often through the crossing of varieties, species, or genera, either by nature or that part of nature called man.
  • Sex is not a necessary attribute of all living things.. [it is] a most necessary attribute if progress in evolution of new forms is to occur, as they have progressed through the ages and as we now see them progressing on this planet.
  • Power to vary in plants or animals is itself a feature as readily transmissible as is stability of character. The quality of varying to meet varying environments is therefore one of the hereditary traits which the plant breeder must consider, and which may itself be extended or overcome by the processes of crossing and selection.
  • It is increasingly necessary to impress the fact that there are two distinct lines in the improvement of any race: the environment which brings individuals up to their best possibilities; the other, ten thousand times more important and effective, selection of the best individuals through a series of generations.
    • Jordan's Commentary: These two lines correspond respectively to Galton's two elements in individual development, "Nurture" and "Nature."

How Plants are Trained to Work for Man (1921) Vol. 5 Gardening

Baby Cotyledons, How Plants are Trained to Work for Man, Vol. 5, Gardening (1921) p. 74.
  • To the gardener who goes about his task with the right spirit must every plant appear as the most wonderful of laboratories in which miracles of transformation, outmatching the utmost feats of the most skillful conjurer, are being performed every hour.
  • The richest soil that was ever prepared would not grow a single blade of grass or the tiniest Weed if that soil were absolutely dry. ...There must be water in the soil to dissolve out and transfer its elements in order that the rootlets of the plant shall be able to make the slightest use of these elements. ...But ...a plant may grow and thrive for a time quite without the presence of soil if its roots are placed in water. ... some of the richest soils in the world are those that are absolutely barren and fully merit the designation of desert lands because water is lacking
  • The essential basis of life itself, namely, protoplasm, is a substance composed largely of water and having the physical constitution of a viscid liquid.
  • The plant, unlike the animal, has provided a special mechanism—a unique laboratory—through which it is able to manufacture from the crude salts in watery solution, with the aid of another element taken from the air, a new compound which will serve the protoplasmic cell with food.
    That is to say, the plant organism as a whole comprises a laboratory for compounding the crude elements, which by themselves cannot be used as nourishment, into a substance that can be used as nourishment. ...The plant is the only place in the world where foodstuffs are manufactured, and that no animal of any kind could live without nourishment that was originally manufactured by some plant, the vital importance of the matter will be manifest.
  • In manufacturing food for its own cells, the plant is producing a supply of food that will be available for the sustenance of animal cells also. Thus the entire animal World may be said to be a vast parasitic colony as absolutely dependent upon the vegetable colony for its essential food supplies as any other parasite is dependent upon its host.
  • The most interesting thing in the world, from the standpoint of animal economy—which of course includes human economy—is the wonderful laboratory or factory of the plant...
  • The plant laboratories in which this wonderful and vitally essential transformation is effected are chiefly located in the leaf of the plant... the thoughtful person must regard this structure—the most ordinary green leaf of tree or shrub or vine or the tiniest blade of grass—as in some respects the most wonderful thing in the world.
  • When the wise plant developer goes into his garden or orchard... his eyes turn always first and foremost to the leaves...
  • No one at all understands why it is possible for the plant cell that bears within its substance one of these green chlorophyll bodies to combine certain inorganic elements into nutritious foods, a feat that no human chemist can perform.
  • What takes place within the structure of the leaf, then, with the aid of the wonderful green workmen, is this: A certain number of molecules of water, brought to the leaf from root and stem, are taken in hand and compounded with a certain number of molecules of carbon extracted from the air that has been brought into the leaf laboratory through its mouths or stomata from the outside atmosphere.
    When the compound has been effected, we still have the atoms of hydrogen and oxygen that composed the water molecules and the atoms of carbon, but they are so marvelously put together that they no longer constitute the liquid water or the gas in which the carbon was imported. They now constitute an altogether new substance which is termed sugar.
    Thus only three elements are dealt with and these very familiar ones. It would seem as if almost any chemist should be able to manage a simple combination like that. But... no human chemist knows how to manage it. There are forces to be invoked in effecting that combination of which no chemist has any knowledge.
    Only the chlorophyll grains in the plant leaf have learned the secret, and up to the present they have kept their secret well.

The Training of the Human Plant (1907)

Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in... any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.
I have constantly been impressed with the similarity between the organization and development of plant and human life.
  • During the course of many years of investigation into the plant life of the world, creating new forms, modifying old ones, adapting others to new conditions, and blending still others, I have constantly been impressed with the similarity between the organization and development of plant and human life.
  • The mere crossing of species, unaccompanied by selection, wise supervision, intelligent care, and the utmost patience, is not likely to result in marked good, and may result in vast harm. Unorganized effort is often most vicious in its tendencies.
  • Let me lay emphasis on the opportunity now presented in the United States for observing and, if we are wise, aiding in what I think it fair to say is the grandest opportunity ever presented of developing the finest race the world has ever known out of the vast mingling of races brought here by immigration.
  • Look at the material on which to draw. Here is the North, powerful, virile, aggressive, blended with the luxurious, ease-loving, more impetuous South. Again you have the merging of a cold phlegmatic temperament with one mercurial and volatile. Still again the union of great native mental strength, developed or undeveloped, with bodily vigor, but with inferior mind. See, too, what a vast number of environmental influences have been at work in social relations, in climate, in physical surroundings. Along with this we must observe the merging of the vicious with the good, the good with the good, the vicious with the vicious.
  • Do not be cross with the child; you cannot afford it. If you are cultivating a plant, developing it into something finer and nobler, you must love it, not hate it; be gentle with it, not abusive; be firm, never harsh. I give the plants upon which I am at work in a test, whether a single one or a hundred thousand, the best possible environment. So should it be with a child, if you want to develop it in right ways. Let the children have music, let them have pictures, let them have laughter, let them have a good time; not an idle time but one full of cheerful occupation. Surround them with all the beautiful things you can. Plants should be given sun and air and the blue sky; give them to your boys and girls. ...for all the years. We cannot treat a plant tenderly one day and harshly the next; they cannot stand it. Remember that you are training not only for to-day, but for all the future, for all posterity.
  • There is not a single desirable attribute which, lacking in a plant, may not be bred into it. Choose what improvement you wish in a flower, a fruit, or a tree, and by crossing, selection, cultivation, and persistence you can fix this desirable trait irrevocably.
  • Pick out any trait you want in your child... By surrounding this child with sunshine from the sky and your own heart, by giving the closest communion with nature, by feeding this child well-balanced, nutritious food, by giving it all that is implied in healthful environmental influences, and by doing all in love, you can thus cultivate in the child and fix there for all its life all of these traits.
  • Here appears a child plainly not normal, what shall we do with him? Shall we, as some have advocated, even from Spartan days, hold that the weaklings should be destroyed? No. In cultivating plant life, while we destroy much that is unfit, we are constantly on the lookout for what has been called the abnormal, that which springs apart in new lines. How many plants are there in the world to-day that were not in one sense once abnormalities? No; it is the influence of cultivation, of selection, of surroundings, of environment, that makes the change from the abnormal to the normal. From the children we are led to call abnormal, may come, under wise cultivation and training, splendid normal natures.
  • In child rearing environment is equally essential with heredity.
  • When certain hereditary tendencies are almost indelibly ingrained, environment will have a hard battle to effect a change in the child; but that a change can be wrought by the surroundings we all know. The particular subject may at first be stubborn against these influences, but repeated application of the same modifying forces in succeeding generations will at last accomplish the desired object in the child as it does in the plant.
  • But with those who are mentally defective—ah, here is the hardest question of all!—what shall be done with them? ...In the case of human beings in whom the light of reason does not burn... shall they be eliminated from the race? Go to the mother of an imbecile child and get your answer. ...For these helpless unfortunates, as with those who are merely unfortunate from environment, I should enlist the best and broadest state aid.
  • Heredity is not the dark specter which some people have thought—merciless and unchangeable, the embodiment of Fate itself. This dark, pessimistic belief which tinges even the literature of to-day comes, no doubt, from the general lack of knowledge of the laws governing the interaction of these two ever-present forces of heredity and environment wherever there is life.
    My own studies have led me to be assured that heredity is only the sum of all past environment, in other words environment is the architect of heredity; and I am assured of another fact: acquired characters are transmitted and—even further—that all characters which are transmitted have been acquired...
  • We may compare this sum of the life forces, which we call heredity, to the character of a sensitive plate in the camera. Outside pictures impress themselves more or less distinctly on the sensitive plate... Stored within heredity are all joys, sorrows, loves, hates, music, art, temples, palaces, pyramids, hovels, kings, queens, paupers, bards, prophets and philosophers, oceans, caves, volcanoes, floods, earthquakes, wars, triumphs, defeats, reverence, courage, wisdom, virtue, love and beauty, time, space, and all the mysteries of the universe. The appropriate environments will bring out and intensify all these general human hereditary experiences and quicken them again into life and action, thus modifying for good or evil, character—heredity—destiny.
  • Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water-lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hay-fields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.
    By being well acquainted with all these they come into most intimate harmony with nature, whose lessons are, of course, natural and wholesome.

Quotes about Burbank

The final and most important factor of Burbank's success is the inherent personal genius of the man, his innate sympathy with nature, aided by the practical education in plant biology derived from thirty years of constant study and experiment...
Vernon Lyman Kellogg
  • As a young man he developed the Burbank potato in his native Massachusetts and used the proceeds to bankroll his larger, lifetime operation in California.
    • Stephen Jay Gould, "Does the Stonless Plum Instruct the Thinking Reed," in Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995)
  • He introduced almost every "new" trait by directed immigration—that is, by importing favorable features from other lineages through hybridization.
    • Stephen Jay Gould, "Does the Stonless Plum Instruct the Thinking Reed," in Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995)
  • Burbank... wished to improve humans exactly as he made better plants... [he] outlined a four-step process... [but] actually accomplished all his feats with only two of his four steps... Ironically, he rooted the humanistic and "liberal" heart of his eugenics program in the two illusory processes... Burbank... advocated Lamarckian inheritance... Nature, in the wild or in horticulture, works on Darwinian, not Lamarckian, principles. Acquired characters are not inherited, and desired improvement occurs by rigorous selection with elimination of the vast majority from the reproductive stream. Burbank could develop new breeds, but he could not alter the rules. He actually worked by extensive hybridization and uncompromising selection, though his own success fooled him into thinking that nature helped his efforts by Lamarckian inheritance. The Lamarckian theme sets the keystone for Burbank's liberal eugenics, based upon the genetic effects of good nurturing. The fallacy of Lamarckianism marks the utter failure of his arguement.
    • Stephen Jay Gould, "Does the Stonless Plum Instruct the Thinking Reed," in Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995)
  • The final and most important factor of Burbank's success is the inherent personal genius of the man, his innate sympathy with nature, aided by the practical education in plant biology derived from thirty years of constant study and experiment which enable him to perceive correlations and outcomes of plant growth which seem to have been visible to no other man.
    • Vernon Lyman Kellogg, "Scientific Aspects of Luther Burbank's Works," Popular Science Monthly (Oct. 1906)
  • His principles are in full harmony with the teachings of science. His methods are hybridization and selection in the broadest sense and on the largest scale. One very illustrative example of his methods must suffice to convey an idea of the work necessary to produce a new race of superlative excellency. Forty thousand blackberry and raspberry hybrids were produced and grown until the fruit matured. Then from the whole lot a single variety was chosen as the best. It is now known under the name of "Paradox." All others were uprooted with their crop of ripening berries, heaped up into a pile twelve feet wide, fourteen feet high and twenty-two feet long, and burned. Nothing remained of that expensive and lengthy experiment, except the one parent plant of the new variety. Similar selections and similar amount of work have produced the famous plums, the brambles and the blackberries, the Shasta daisy, the peach-almond, the improved blueberries, the hybrid lilies, and the many other valuable fruits and garden-flowers that have made the fame of Burbank and the glory of horticultural California.
  • A unique, great genius!. To see him was the prime reason of my coming to America. He works to definite ends. He ought to be not only cherished but helped. Unaided he cannot do his best. He should be as well known and as widely appreciated in California as among scientific men in Europe.

How Plants are Trained to Work for Man: Plant breeding (1921) Vol. 1

Prefatory Note by David Starr Jordan (July 5, 1921)
  • After a short experience in an agricultural implement manufactory he began market gardening and seed growing in a small way, one of his first and therefore now best known achievements being the development of the Burbank potato from a selected seedling of the Early Rose. On October 1, 1875, he removed from Massachusetts to Santa Rosa, California, where he has lived ever since devoting himself to the production of new forms of plants by crossing and selection.
  • For the sake of one great advance, he can afford to burn thousands of plants of which the combinations of inheritable character show little or no improvement over the parent stock.
  • Burbank is proud to acknowledge that his success rests on the science of Darwin...
  • Burbank's special field is that of plant genetics; here he is artist as well as scientist. Academic, no—but science is not necessarily bred in the academy. ...he has not studied in the universities, though his large library contains most of the books which relate to these subjects.
  • Burbank worked for years alone, not understood nor appreciated, and usually at a financial loss, for his instincts and aims were those of a scientist, not of a horticulturist.
  • In his way he belongs to the class of Faraday and the self-taught men of the last generation who dealt steadily with facts, while universities spent their energies on fine points of grammar, and a philosophy which, like an epiphytic plant, had its roots in the air.
  • With broader opportunities, Burbank could have done a greater variety of things and touched life at more points; but he would thus have lost something of his simple intensity and fine delicacy—things the schools do not give and too much contact with society sometimes takes away.
  • Big men are usually of simple, direct sincerity of character. These marks are found in Burbank, sweet, straightforward, unspoiled as a child, devoted to truth, never turning aside to seek fame or money or other personal reward. If his place be outside the great temple of science, not many of the rest of us will be found fit to enter.

See also