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Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants

Jane S. Smith Author 
Penguin (Non-Classics) (February 23, 2010)
    Language: English
    ISBN-10: 0143116894
    ISBN-13: 978-0143116899
Jane Smith gave a presentation to the Southern California Horticultural Society on her recently published (and soon to be published in paperback) book, The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants. I wish the propagation class had been there. I bought the book, however, so expect to regaled with stories from it over the coming weeks. 

Burbank, before the world in general had grasped the implications of Mendel and Darwin's work, was busy putting his intellect into the art of breeding plants. He proved to be a genius at it and the catalog of his introductions over his lifetime is staggering! We owe to him the Burbank potato (over 150 years after its' introduction, it is still the most widely planted potato in the world); Shasta Daisy, a plant with four parents and a staple in cottage gardens world wide; and the Santa Rosa plum (and others) which is probably still the standard against which all red plums are gaged to this day.

His home in Santa Rosa, CA (hence the names of the plum and the daisy) is almost like going to Mecca for those gardeners who admire Burbank's work. This book, not so much a biography of the man as it is directed at his plant breeding, is perfect to understand the motives and the actions of Burbank, who still stirs controversy today. Some folks call him a huckster, some folks call him a charlatan. Others count Luther Burbank a hero and an extraordinary genius, up in the pantheon with Mendel, Darwin and others working in this field.

One story that I thought would be wonderful for a propagation class, involved a banker who had purchased a quantity of land that he wished to plant into orchards of plums. In February, he placed an order for 120,000 plum trees to be delivered that November. Burbank accepted the order and set about to fulfill it.

He planted fields of almond trees, a very fast growing tree in the same family and closely related to the plum. In late summer, Burbank grafted plum buds to all those trees which were dug and sold that November.! Not only was is it quite a cash windfall that Burbank could use, good reputations have been built on a lot less! It heaved Burbank's already god-like status heavily into the stratosphere.

Although I have only started the book, I think it will be a fine read to tear through on a week without a class. And it will be right in tune with teaching propagation to gardeners!


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