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Luther Burbank was a well-known horticulturist and botanist, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest innovators of agricultural science. Born in Massachusetts, Burbank spent much of his career in Northern California, working on the hybridization and development of plant life. Although occasionally disdained by the scientific community, Burbank’s legacy is widespread through both memorials and the continued popularity of his creations.
In 1849, Luther Burbank was born as the thirteenth of fifteen children in a farming family in Lancaster, Massachusetts. Although he completed only a grammar school education, Burbank’s real source of learning came from his life on the farm. He purchased a small farm of his own in 1870, where he would create his first famous hybrid, the Russet Burbank potato. This vegetable would go on to become one of the most popular commercial varieties in the United States, but Luther Burbank sold the production rights to it in 1874. With the profits earned from the sale, Luther Burbank relocated to Santa Rosa, California, a small town in the temperate North Bay Area.
Once established in Santa Rosa, Burbank purchased a large plot of land to use as hybrid experimentation grounds for his products. As he became more successful, he also bought an 18 acre farm in the nearby town of Sebastopol, used for additional new farming and plant breeding techniques. His long career and patient work would lead to more than 800 new varieties of fruits, flowers, vegetables, trees and grasses.
Luther Burbank created dozens of species of plants that are well known today. The large, sunny, Shasta daisy is one of his best known creations. Among his most famous fruit creations were the juicy Santa Rosa plum and the Freestone peach. Today, the Burbank potato is one of the most cultivated varieties in the world. If you enjoy French fries from chain restaurants, you have likely eaten hundreds of Burbank potatoes.
As Luther Burbank grew in fame throughout California, he became an unofficial ambassador of the state to visiting celebrities and scientists. A famous picture shows him seated comfortably between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who both visited his farms. Helen Keller, the famous author and inspirational speaker, made a point to visit Burbank in 1920. Burbank also counted as a dear friend the famous yogi guru, Parmahansa Yoganada.
Outside of his work with plants, Burbank was a strong believer in early education and donated much of his money and time to local schools and arts organizations. Ten schools around the country have been named in his honor, and each year the city of Santa Rosa holds the Luther Burbank Rose Parade in his honor. Both his home and garden in Santa Rosa, and Gold Ridge Farm in Sebastopol have been turned into historic sites and are open for public visits.
Luther Burbank died in 1926 at age 77, due to complications following a heart attack. Partly due to his influence, a 1930 patent law was passed in the US, allowing the patenting of plants by inventors as a financial motivation to continue horticultural research. Despite some scientists who disapproved of his experimental methods and lack of clear research notes, Burbank was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1986. Burbank is remembered worldwide for his innovation, his work ethic and his constant kindness toward people and his community.