The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants, by Jane S. Smith. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009. 368 pp. $25.95 (cloth).


In 1849, millions were starving due to a then-mysterious disease that “in a matter of days, if not hours, could transform a thriving field [of potatoes] into a slimy, foul-smelling patch of rotting vegetation” (pp. 38–39). Everywhere, plants were “extremely inconspicuous, [tasted] terrible, or [went] to seed in a fast and fabulously prolific way, leaving nothing behind to harvest.” And plants had evolved characteristics by which they survived just long enough to reproduce, characteristics that were unsuitable for feeding a large and fast-growing population (p. 40).

But all this was about to change, and dramatically so, thanks to a man born that year: Luther Burbank (p. 6). In her new book The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants, Jane S. Smith presents the life of this extremely influential but mostly forgotten plant breeder and businessman, emphasizing his innovations and the methods he used to develop and sell them.

Burbank displayed some mechanical ingenuity as a child, but, Smith reveals, apart from this, nothing in Burbank’s background suggested that he might become an inventor of new plants (p. 19). Though young men of his time were encouraged to work in an academic setting, Burbank, fond as he was of the outdoors, was unsure whether he wanted to follow suit—until, at the age of 21, he picked up a copy of Charles Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication.

Smith describes this book as a “detail-crammed response to those who had criticized On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection as a hypothesis unsupported by sufficient proof” (p. 27), then concisely sums up what Burbank read:

From gooseberries to gladioli, Darwin compiled his evidence: plants changed in response to outside stimulus (like the cabbages Darwin described that changed their shape or color when planted in different countries), and these changes could happen within a short time span (like the hyacinths he said growers had managed to improve from the offerings of only a few generations earlier). The causes of the changes were still largely unknown, but their occurrence was a fact beyond dispute. This was evolution measured in human time (p. 28).

Burbank took from the book several big ideas—each of which Smith relates in an easy-to-read style:

The first was that it was possible to force the emergence of latent differences in fruits and flowers, even to the point of generating what seemed to be entirely new varieties. Still more exciting was Darwin’s tentative suggestion that selecting, grafting, hybridizing, or simply moving a plant to a new environment might spur changes that would persist over generations. According to Darwin, these alterations were often inadvertent, but as Burbank immediately realized, such happy accidents could also be deliberately pursued. The creation of new plant varieties, something far beyond the familiar efforts to breed the best of an existing stock, did not need to wait for the slow accumulation of natural advantages Darwin had described in his Origin of Species. Evolutionary change could be accelerated by human intervention (p. 28).

Darwin’s words “opened up a new world” for Burbank (p. 27). Not only did the book give him an intellectual framework for viewing the world and man’s place in it, but an advertisement on the last page of Burbank’s edition of Darwin’s tract (for a book called Gardening for Profit) enabled him to see for the first time his place in it. He would not have to choose “between the outdoor life and the inventor’s bench” after all—plant life “could be a subject for experimentation and improvement, and a commercial garden could provide a good living for an imaginative and enterprising man” (p. 30).

After relocating to California in search of cheap farmland with which to begin his new career, the still-young Burbank faced a number of hardships. Smith points out that he lived in an eight-by-ten-foot shack with two others (p. 54), earned a “very precarious living” collecting plants for botanical gardens (p. 56), and, worst of all, discovered that “the cheap farmland he had been expecting turned out not to exist” (p. 55).

Smith notes that after renting land and going into business for himself, Burbank earned very little money relative to what he could have made at even the lowest paid jobs elsewhere. Business was so slow that Burbank—who later became somewhat of an outcast among scientists for his lack of note-taking—had enough time to jot down the name of every customer and note how long each pondered his choices (p. 68). But business would soon pick up, as Burbank knew how to spot and seize an opportunity.

Smith details one of Burbank’s early breakthroughs, demonstrating in the process the plant breeder’s ingenuity. In the early weeks of 1881, a wealthy businessman named William Dutton “decided to get into the business of raising plums for prunes” and “went in search of twenty thousand plum trees ready for planting in the fall” (p. 75). Soon, however, he ran into difficulty: No one in the area would take his enormous order. Nowhere near that many plum trees were in the accessible marketplace, and the nurserymen “all insisted that it would be impossible to produce plum trees that would be bearing fruit by the following spring, as Dutton wanted. All except for one, that is. Luther Burbank accepted the job” (p. 77).

Burbank’s plan for filling Dutton’s order would make a major contribution to the fruit industry in California. His first innovation was production on a large scale that might seem ordinary today but which had not previously been attempted. Twenty years before Henry Ford established his first auto factory and thirty years before the first Detroit assembly line started up, Burbank developed a system for mass-producing plum trees.

His second innovation was to start with a kind of tree that was not the one his customer wanted. The challenge that had baffled other nurserymen of the area was how to produce seedling trees that would be ready to plant in the fall. There weren’t twenty thousand plum trees available at any price, so they would have to be started from seed, but plums did not grow nearly fast enough to meet Dutton’s nine-month deadline. Burbank’s solution was to skip the plum seeds and start with almonds, which would sprout much more quickly.

Within a week, he rented five acres of land along a creek in Santa Rosa and hired a large crew of temporary workers he quickly trained in the operation he had in mind. He bought twenty thousand almond seeds, selecting for uniform large size, and had his crew set the seeds directly on the sandy bed near the creek. They then covered the almonds with a layer of coarse burlap that was itself topped with another layer of moist sand. The burlap layer, which could be lifted, made it possible to peek below the surface and see how the seeds were doing. As the almonds sprouted . . . workers removed them and planted them four inches apart in rows four feet apart, all on the same rented land. (p. 78)

Knowing that plums belonged to the same genus (Prunus), Burbank planned to transform the almond seeds into plum trees by a process that was “virtually unknown in California at the time” and he himself had only read about but never done. The process—a type of grafting called June budding—involves joining a small branch to an existing limb with the goal of uniting the two parts into a single organic enterprise. The process is set in motion by inserting a single bud into a slit or notch cut into the bark of the host. The advantage of this type of grafting was that it could be done several months earlier than other kinds, producing a new tree in a single growing season. It also had a major drawback: The graft had to take and keep without killing the young and fragile rootstock. Burbank, however, had been grafting since he was young and was confident that it would work.

On December 1, 1881, Burbank had 19,500 trees ready to deliver. The remaining 500 had to wait for the following season, but Dutton was delighted. In nine months, Burbank had turned a few sacks of almonds into enough plum trees for a two-hundred acre orchard, and word of the achievement soon spread to other growers. Burbank’s reputation for performing the impossible, and doing it fast, was beginning to take root (p. 82).

Although “the profits from the Dutton order were not enormous,” Smith points out that “the job brought in other big customers and a steady increase in sales”—which soon made Burbank “one of the leading nurserymen in the area” (p. 82).

In 1893, little more than a decade later, Burbank published his New Creations in Fruits and Flowers catalog. “Had the Garden of Eden itself been up for sale,” Smith notes, “the prospectus might have read something like this publication” (p. 112).

Like the first Creator, Burbank, too, was bringing forth a new order out of chaos, and putting more time into the effort: “twenty years in which I have been actively engaged in this new work, . . . the most extensive of its kind which exists or has ever existed in this or any other country.”

Although he didn’t quite say so, the implication was that while the first Creation was good, Burbank had made it better, going back to improve the stuff of nature with some marvelously useful adjustments to better suit current needs and desires. At his bidding, the walnut tree had been made to grow faster and to become more prolific and the rose to smell more fragrant. Under his touch, the plum had been taught to grow plumper while the hard, sour quince became softer and sweeter. No fruit was too small to escape his watchful eye or benefit from his care, he boasted (p. 112).

It was “a perilous time” to be launching a new business—as the U.S. economy “experienced a financial panic followed by a depression”—but Burbank’s catalog was a smashing success (p. 107). Though he did not (and never would) achieve the same financial success as Edison did with his inventions, the catalog “catapulted him to a new level of national and international celebrity” (p. 107), thus ensuring that he could continue his business in comfort for the rest of his days.

Smith points out the indifference or scorn that greets new innovations in agriculture today, then contrasts this response with the lavish praise heaped on Burbank in his own time. According to Smith, the differing responses stem from a difference in attitudes: Burbank was operating “at a time when the vast majority of people agreed that improving on nature was, in fact, a very good thing to do” (p. 6). Throughout her book, Smith shows an admirable ability to focus on such issues of broad importance, and she often identifies their causes.

The later chapters of The Garden of Invention detail the books that were written about Burbank following his death, discuss Henry Ford’s attempt to procure for his museum practically anything Burbank touched, and talk about Burbank’s portrayal by contemporary artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Although interesting on some level, such trivia is anticlimactic following, as it does, Smith’s thoroughly captivating presentation of Burbank’s accomplishments. Fortunately, in the final chapter Smith regains her focus on essentials, bringing the reader back into the world of breeding plants as a business, thus ending the book on a satisfying note. The subject here is the legal protection for a plant breeder’s creations—something that Burbank fought his whole life to obtain but, sadly, never did. Smith relays the argument put forward by Burbank in favor of such legal protection:

“As a matter of justice,” he wrote, the originator of new plants deserved the same “untold wealth” as the originators of mechanical devices who could patent their inventions. And, as a matter of policy, it would be a benefit to all if plant inventors could obtain patents. “Our very civilization depends on the improvements which have been made with plants,” he pointed out, “but there is very little financial inducement for improving them” (pp. 303–4).

Partly because of his argument, plant breeders of today do have legal protection for their creations—and the almost nonstop improvement of plants today is in large measure a direct result.

Despite its brief foray into the trivial, The Garden of Invention accomplishes what it set out to do: It presents the life and work of one of the world’s greatest, yet sadly little known, inventors. This wonderful book will provide readers with knowledge of and a profound appreciation for a great man and his life-serving methods.

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