The 1900s were the era of farmers and avid home gardeners. New plant varieties were major innovations and the innovator was Luther Burbank. He developed more than 800 varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers, many that we still plant.  For many of this time, the development of the Santa Rosa plum was as exciting as the light bulb invented by another wizard of the time, Edison. 

Burbank was a self-taught vegetable farmer from a small town in Massachusetts fascinated by Darwin’s theory of evolution. He used this idea to breed early corn and in 1875, he sold the right to one of his results, a nice looking, starchy potato, the Burbank for $150. (about $3,000 today) to a seed dealer. That money paid for a move to California where two of his brothers ranched. He worked as a carpenter while looking for a home for his nursery. He settled for Santa Rosa, thus the name for his plum. The farmers in that area were wheat farmers but the farm practices of the time were depleting the soil, so they were looking for another money-making crop and shifting to fruit.

Burbank was already collecting plants from around the world for breeding stock for his experiments. He was as interested in ornamentals as food crops. He said “the need for beautiful and gracious and lovely things in life is as vital a need as the urge for bread.” It is almost unbelievable the longevity of the plants he developed. His Santa Rosa plum defines plum flavor and still serves as a pollinator in many commercial orchards. Burbank hybridized the Paradox walnut in 1896 to create a fast growing, fine-grained hardwood. It is still a popular rootstock for fighting disease in commercial walnuts. We still plant his Shasta daisies and Rainbow Swiss chard. He made gladiolas popular by developing a new gladiola with dense, long lasting blooms.

In 1892, the Santa Rosa Daily Democrat wrote “Can’t was never in his dictionary. He has never been bound by the supposed law of hybridity; by the laws laid down in books; that the books and supposed former facts of science say that hybrids cannot be obtained between this and that species, is no rule or guide for him.” Scientists didn’t like him because he wasn’t one of them and couldn’t explain to them what he was doing. He didn’t take meticulous notes that are the hallmark of scientific crossings. His were based on intuition and observation, not, scientists said, the way it should be done.

His record keeping was atrocious. Rachel Spaeth, garden curator of the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens told of his losing a Carnegie Grant for $10,000 because he wouldn’t write down the parentage for his experimental crossings.  His unorthodox methods probably boosted his productivity and may have camouflaged his crosses from copycats as there was no legal protection for plant varieties.  He did leave some clues. He made a fruit print of each of his crosses by pressing down a cut fruit onto a piece of paper, tracing it and writing his observations about it. Some of the plum prints still have a bit of flesh on it. Ms. Spaeth is attempting to use DNA from the prints to identify the maternal origins of Burbank’s plums. She hopes to reveal the complexity of his crosses and how far he was able to push the laws of hybridity.  Thanks to an article in the magazine The Furrow written by Steve Weblow for much of this information.

Bev Johnson is a Master Gardener with the University of Minnesota Extension. Her column appears in the Weekend Edition.

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