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Book Review 257: A Gardener Touched with Genius

December 2, 2012 - Harry Eagar
A GARDENER TOUCHED WITH GENIUS: The Life of Luther Burbank, by Peter Dreyer. 403 pages, illustrated. Luther Burbank Home & Gardens.

I don't know if Luther Burbank is still a household name. When I was a boy in the '50s, everybody knew that Burbank was the world's greatest plant breeder, although other than creating a white blackberry, I don't think many of us knew what he had done. But we understood that a man who could conjure up a white blackberry was a genius.

According to Peter Dreyer's meticulous life -- necessarily incomplete as the records are not that good -- the white blackberry was one of Burbank's failures. Not especially good eating, it disappeared once the novelty of it wore off.

Burbank himself believed that any character could be coaxed out of a plant by a sufficiently skilled breeder, because he believed that all qualities existed in the germ plasm. He disbelieved in mutations.

This was an open question when Burbank began his plant nursery in the 1870s. Before his career ended in the '20s, knowledge had caught up with Burbank but he did not change his opinion.

He was a -- perhaps almost, the -- stellar example of the self-made Yankee artificer. Only Thomas Edison, perhaps, had a greater reputation with the public. He was also one of the first to benefit from and be tortured by the modern pulicity apparatus.

Newspapers and magazines were insatiable for copy, and while Dreyer emphasizes the magazines and never mentions the Sunday supplements, it was the supplements that ensure that everyone knew the names of Burbank, Edison, Einstein and Fitzgerald. The Hearst papers alone printed 30 million copies, seen by at least 60 million, Americans -- nearly half the population.

The supplements were not too discriminating nor reliable. Burbank was not so widely admired by professional botanists. but like Alfred Wagener (the author of continental drift), Burbank's real achievements were discounted by the professionals. Public opinion was, in his case, more nearly accurate.

He gave his enemies plenty of ammunition to use against him. In business, he fell into the hands of stockjobbers, who boomed his enthusiasm for prickly pear cactus as a desert cattle fodder. (Burbank tried to breed a spineless variety, never quite succeeding.)

Ironically, his greatest achievement was not in breeding. It was his sharp eye that spotted a potato seed pod (a very rare event, it was the only one Burbank ever encountered), saved it, selected two offspring and gave America the Burbank potato -- now more commonly called a russet, baker or Idaho potato, but at one time sold as a Burbank potato.

His entrepreneurial acumen was remarkable. The breeder of the Concord grape (also a New England boy) went broke trying to defend his discovery from poachers. Burbank sold his stock, and all rights, to nurserymen for lofty prices (sometimes $3,000 in the 1890s), and left it to them to market, publicize and protect the rights.

To make this work, he had to produce thousands of new varieties, some scores each year, and he did. A summary of his introductions published as an appendix in "A Gardener Touched with Genius" runs to 110 pages.

He died very well-off though unsuccessful as a breeder personally. His two marriages were barren and his relations with women generally were unhappy.

The story of Burbank is worth remembering. "Charisma is a double-edged instrument," writes Dreyer. "He was trapped by his admirers."

The admirers have passed on now and we can appreciate Burbank better for what he was and what he wasn't -- one of the greatest Americans of the early modern era, a man with opinions on many other subjects besides plants, some of them worth thinking about today.


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