If you’ve ever enjoyed a McDonald’s French fry, you have Luther Burbank to thank.
In the 1800s, potato growers were desperately seeking a potato that would resist blight. Luther Burbank, a simple farm boy from Lancaster, Mass. with a high school education had knack for cross-cultivating plants. He had purchased a 17-acre plot of land in Lunenberg where he carried out his experiments.
Working with a potato imported from Chile, the Early Rose, he was struggling to find a potato that would both produce a seed ball and was hearty and blight resistant.
In 1872, he planted his latest mix and waited. He almost lost the plant in the field, he would later say, finding the above-ground stalk some 20 feet from where he planted the potato. But when he dug, he was rewarded with a winner. ”As quick as I dug I knew I had a prize,” he would recall.
He made an effort to sell his creation to B.K. Bliss & Co. in 1873, but they were suspicious of the potato. It was too sweet and nutty. They suspected it had been doctored, and they turned him down.
Burbank’s next step was to send some of his potatoes to the James. H. Gregory Seed Company of Marblehead, Mass. Gregory asked how much he wanted. He said $500. They offered $125 (later supplemented with another $25), and the Burbank Russet was born into the world.
By age 25, Burbank launched himself westward to take advantage of the California climate. His new Russet potato was not an immediate success. Despite its heartiness and size, the preferred potato of California farmers was the Bodega Red. But Burbank had built a better potato and soon farmers took notice.
Luther Burbank soon began building out his gardens in his adopted home of Santa Rosa, Calif. He created a persona that was part showman, part mad scientist. He was a pioneer in the field of agricultural science. He had tens of thousands of plants under cultivation at any one time, and his interests were endless.
Seedless watermelons, pit-less plums, thornless roses and spineless cactus were his colorful pursuits, and wags joked that if he was so smart why couldn’t he breed a watermelon with a handle on it so it would be easier to carry?
But Burbank’s own P.T. Barnum style helped fuel his image. He once showed off a single apple tree that, through countless grafts, grew 73 varieties of apples.
Showmanship aside, over the decades Burbank contributed to improvements in wheats, berries and flowers and he changed the American diet in countless ways with the hundreds of plant varieties he created. His supporters long claimed that Burbank was a rival of Edison in terms of his creations, and in 1905 his genius was officially recognized.
The Carnegie Foundation awarded him a $100,000 grant – to be paid over ten years – to fund his research. The pressure, meanwhile, grew on Burbank. Visitors now sought out his remote gardens. Other scientists pestered him for information. While Burbank was not secretive, the constant attention began to wear on him. He was kind-hearted, but a limited record-keeper, which frustrated his fellow scientists.
In 1910, the grant blew up on him. Either he refused future payments or it was rescinded. (Perhaps both.) Newspapers reported that Burbank claimed to invent the spineless cactus. He never did. But he was working to develop a spineless cactus that would grow faster, so it could be used as cattle feed in desert areas. In addition, he had signed an agreement with a new company, the Burbank Seed Co., to sell his seeds and inventions.
Either way, Burbank said he was glad to be rid of the Carnegie funding in 1910. “The grant brought with it cares, responsibilities, correspondence and visitors and a full crop of envy and jealousy . . . Personally, I have no desire for wealth or fame. A thirst for these is the root of many evils. My ambition has been to leave the world the better for having passed this way. To be misjudged is a passing trifle, to have lost a life of honest labor is a tragedy.”
With his fame at its apex, everything Burbank did drew attention. When he bought an automobile, it was news. When he ordered a specific type of pear tree, the public wondered what he was creating next.
His business took a turn for the worse in 1916. He sued the Burbank Seed Co. for unpaid bills and the company declared bankruptcy later in the year.
With his business winding down, Burbank died in 1926. His plants and seeds were sold to the Stark Seed Company, which later sold them to seed giant Burpee. But his memory is alive and well in Santa Rosa. His home is open to the public as a museum and every year the city celebrates his contribution to horticulture with the Luther Burbank Rose Parade and Festival.
And his Burbank Russet remains one of the most popular potatoes consumed today.