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A Gardener Touched With Genius : THE LIFE OF LUTHER BURBANK (revised edition) by Peter Dryer (University of California: $29.95; 293 pp., illustrated)

October 13, 1985|DAVID GRABER | Graber is a research scientist with the National Park Service. and

"Between 1850 and 1900 nearly every one's existence was exceptional," wrote Henry Adams. Peter Dreyer adds that for Americans in particular, "the relative velocity of change was as great or perhaps even greater than it is today." Some of the claims for that time are the extraordinary men it offered. It was the age of the great pre-corporate industrialists, and it was the age of wizards: Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and--not least--Luther Burbank.

These four were pragmatic geniuses. Utility, not cerebration, was what they and their age admired. Three of them spawned great industrial companies as a consequence of their creations; Burbank the fourth, left a smattering of fruits and flowers bearing his name. Burbank was not (despite the claims of his admirers) a major contributor to the sciences of evolution and genetics. He was, most assuredly, a brilliant and prolific breeder of plants whose contributions to American agriculture and horticulture seemed almost magical to the public of his day. Biographer Peter Dreyer, in this radical and augmented revision of his previous work, presents a delightfully readable portrait of one of California's more charismatic inhabitants.

Luther Burbank arrived in Santa Rosa, Calif., in the autumn of 1875, a 26-year-old following his brothers West from Massachusetts. Having already made a reputation for himself by discovering and marketing the "Burbank Potato," smitten with Charles Darwin's writings on plant variation and artificial selection, Burbank dreamed of improving "ornamental trees and shrubs, to look into the possibility of breeding better lumber trees, to produce finer varieties of flowers, and to give the farmers and gardeners of the world a whole range of earlier, sturdier, more productive fruits and vegetables." It was a time when the new rail links (and, soon, refrigerated cars) would provide Eastern markets for the specialty crops California was so well-suited to produce.

By 1881, Burbank had, by dint of hard work and creativity, established himself as a nurseryman; soon he was making a good living at it. Now he could afford the luxury of ordering seeds and cuttings from abroad, as well as making collecting trips in the surrounding areas. From both of these sources he crossed and re-crossed, using his grafting skills to bring new material to fruit in just a few years. California already was a major producer of plums and prunes, and soon Burbank was augmenting these with novel varieties.

At that, says Dreyer, Burbank began the habits that would win him his reputation as a wizard, and the eventual hostility of other plant breeders. In his catalogues, Burbank made no clear distinction between varieties he had purchased elsewhere, such as some excellent Japanese plums, and those he had bred locally from any number of sources. One was given the impression--not unusual, observes Dryer, for nurserymen of that time (or this)--that they were all somehow Burbank creations. And in fact, Burbank's notoriously casual record-keeping of his lineages and crosses often made it difficult for Burbank himself to know the origins of some promising variety listed for sale.

During the decades of the '80s and '90s, Burbank's productions spread rapidly from his Santa Rosa farm. Most were sold to seed and tree merchants for mass propagation and sale to the public. Meanwhile, several biologists were painfully re-creating the laws of genetics first discovered by Gregor Mendel. One of these, the Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, came to see Burbank in hope that this miracle worker and avowed Darwinian could shed light on the genetics/selection link.

In the decades that followed, business ventures on Burbank's behalf went awry, other breeders caught up with his work while both the scientific and botanical communities criticized his ideas and achievements. But the man was both more and less than his charismatic image, says biographer Dreyer. He was a genius; Dreyer exhumes sufficient examples from the scanty written materials he left. He made an important discovery since confirmed by science: Plant hybridization sometimes leads to new species that breed true. But he was no scientist himself. His habits were of the intuitive artist with a special feeling for nature. Though personally honest, he was an outrageous self-promoter who permitted others to inflate his abilities, quoting him on all manner of subjects of the time: raising children, eugenics, religion.

There is surprisingly little in print about Luther Burbank. Dreyer's biography fills that gap with a spirited portrayal that is nonetheless comprehensive and scholarly.

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