Every generation has its public scientific figures — the thinkers, tinkerers and discoverers.
These days, the public face of science can be found in the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson or Stephen Hawking, and we look back through the generations at great minds like Albert Einstein, Alan Turing and Isaac Asimov. We see innovation from modern-day tinkerers in programming that gives rise to new ways of connecting the world.
We look back at tinkerers — Thomas Edison brought the world into a new light, Henry Ford gave us wheels and the Wright brothers gave us wings.
Not often, but sometimes, those great minds find themselves combined with a green thumb. Around the turn of the 20th century, the country was still mostly agrarian — our major industry was growing food and fiber to feed and clothe ourselves. Is it any wonder that a man with a knack for making new and improved plants could find stardom in an agriculturally centered country — a man whose contributions to gardening and farming are still present today, nearly a century after his death?
Born on a farm in Lancaster, Massachusetts, Luther Burbank received only an elementary education. A shy and morose child (even according to his brother), he loved plants and was fascinated with the garden.
As a young man, he discovered a fruit-containing seed on a potato plant and started the seeds. Little did he know that the hardiest plant he selected from those seedlings would go on to be the standard commercial potato of the century — the russet Burbank potato.
If you’ve ever eaten a processed potato product — including the french fries served by Ronald McDonald, you’ve benefited from Burbank’s first successful plant introduction.
Surely the man who changed the face of agriculture today would be rewarded handsomely for his efforts, right?
Guess again. As a young, frugal man, Burbank sold his rights to a seed proprietor for $150 — enough to get him to Santa Rosa, California (the new owner of the potato allowed him to take 10 potatoes with him for seed potatoes).
Spurred by his first success at plant breeding and his study of natural selection in the works of Charles Darwin, Burbank set himself to developing new plants through the direction of the selection process.
Crossing plants of all variety, and even practicing interspecific (between two species) crossing, he worked as a mad scientist on his farms — often not taking the time to document his work and keep records.
He created the Shasta daisy, the freestone peach, the July Elberta peach and an interspecific cross of plums and apricots called a “plumcot.”
He developed fruits, vegetables, grains and ornamentals at a feverish pace throughout his half-century long career. By the time of his death in 1927, he had created hundreds of new plant varieties and offered them for sale through catalogs.
He was the human face of the modern garden movement.
He was heralded as a great man, honored for turning the California agricultural economy around, and generally regarded as a heroic figure of his time.
In other words, he was famous. His friends set out to honor his work by lobbying Congress to pass the Plant Patent Act, which would allow breeders to protect their plants. Even his friend Edison testified before Congress that the bill would “give us many Burbanks.”
Sixteen patents were awarded to Burbank. Would a Luther Burbank be regarded with such esteem today? Likely not.
The current faces of science stem from the fields of technology and astrophysics and not from the life sciences. But even beyond that, there seems to be a frightening anti-intellectual movement against advancements in agriculture.
Spurred by fear and mistrust of Genetically Modified Organisms and rampant misinformation spread online, even simple hybrid fruits and vegetables have come under attack for being harmful. If it isn’t specifically labeled heirloom or non-GMO, a certain number of ill-informed (or even a handful of those who are militantly and purposefully ignorant on the subject) will attack a plant or a seed company for killing everyone with genetically modified seeds. It simply is not true.
Luther Burbank, hero of turn-of-the-20th century gardeners, would be lambasted as an enemy in today’s Facebook-fueled society.
The fact of the matter is, the process that Burbank used and even modern plant breeders use to create new varieties through hybridization makes use of the good old-fashioned reproductive process plants possess on their own.
Humans have directed the genetics of plants for thousands of years, and, without that intervention, the human race would still be foraging for roots, berries and twigs — civilization as we know it would not exist. Nearly all of the food we eat has been shaped at the hand of humans into the forms we know today.
Even the simple act of saving your own seeds from the garden is a process of artificial selection for plant genetics — you pick the best out of your garden to save, thereby creating your own breed of that certain plant that does best in your climate and with your methods.
But even the act of manually crossing two different tomatoes, or cucumbers, or roses, to make a new tomato, cucumber or rose is still simply using the natural process the plants possess on their own. There is nothing new about it. There is nothing foreign about it.
While many people do have reservations about GMOs (and I’m not even going to talk about that subject), they aren’t going to be found in any catalog or seed rack available to the home garden consumer. They simply aren’t available, and they aren’t marketable enough to make money for companies.
Seed companies that advertise that they are non-GMO and make a big deal about it add to the confusion. Of course their seeds are non-GMO. All home garden seeds are non-GMO.
It is like advertising that a bottle of water is gluten-free or that a carrot contains no animal byproducts. It simply isn’t necessary.
Just keep calm and grow food — I promise it will be OK.
To learn more about Luther Burbank, check out the biography “The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants,” by Jane S. Smith (The Penguin Press, 2009). If you are in Northern California, visit the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa (a National Historic Landmark) or his Gold Ridge Experimental Farm nearby (on the National Register of Historic Places).
Burbank’s boyhood home and California garden office were moved to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, by Henry Ford. The village and the Burbank buildings are still there, part of The Henry Ford, a museum honoring the revolutionary automaker.