Proc. Soc. Hort. Sci 3: 32-34 (1905)
A VISIT TO LUTHER BURBANK
N. E. HANSEN,
Experiment Station, Brookings, S. D.
I had the pleasure of visiting the plant-breeding establishment of Luther Burbank at Santa Rosa, California, August 26, 1905. For a number of years I had looked forward to this pleasure, my desire being to learn more of the methods of this master worker with plant life. I was cordially received and in the course of three hours learned much of interest.
That Mr. Burbank is devoid of the commercial instinct may be gathered from the fact that he has refused many offers to go into commercial work and to make a fortune by propagating his seedlings in a wholesale way. His interest in a plant ceases when he has it ready for the propagators. Mr. Burbank then goes on with new work. Non-technical space writers and clever journalists have overdone the matter of writing up Mr. Burbank's establishment, but that is not his fault. In newspaper work the first essential is to make the subject interesting. On the other hand, some of our scientific workers are in danger of criticizing too much. Before they criticize any more, they should produce one single seedling from their own work that in a measure approximates the remarkable achievements of this California plant-breeder. It is said that one of our best known scientific men visited Mr. Burbank entirely incredulous that such a thing as a stoneless plum existed; he had to cut several plums through before he "acknowledged the corn." Mr. Burbank's spineless cactus is by no means the spineless cactus of the Orient but is perfectly smooth, and a combination, as I understand, of about five different species of Opuntia. As for the secret of Mr. Burbank's methods, Mr. Burbank informed me that he had no secrets and was willing to answer any questions.
1. In the garden at the back of the home place at Santa Rosa the main thing to notice is the remarkable means by which is applied the principle laid down by Darwin "Excess of food causes variation." Bone meal and other commercial fertilizers are largely used and the plant is given as much feed as it will possibly stand. Mr. Burbank is his own florist and a very skillful one and his helpers simply carry out his directions. This intense feeding is a very potent way of compelling variations to appear.
2. Seeds are sown in flats in the greenhouse and transplanted as single individuals to the beds outside. Mr. Burbank has apparently solved the problem of picking out the good and promising seedlings at a very early period. In producing the spineless cactus, he selected spineless specimens from thousands of seedlings in seed flats of the Minnesota wild cactus.
3. As a powerful stimulus to breaking up the fixity of type, hybridizing is resorted to on a large scale, many species being brought together from the ends of the earth to this favored clime where everything will live and flourish. Mr. Burbank does not always emasculate the blossoms but takes careful note of the conditions of the stigma so that the pollination is done at the right time.
4. Top-grafting on bearing trees is resorted to extensively, one apple tree being shown near the house containing 526 kinds of apples top-grafted upon it. At Sebastopol, eight or nine miles from Santa Rosa, where there are fifteen acres of seedlings that have outgrown their quarters at the home place at Santa Rosa, many kinds of plums and other orchard fruits are top-grafted in long hedge rows. The original seedling is rarely saved, only one or two scions being taken for top-grafting. When the seedling fruits, which is usually the second year, if it is not satisfactory the stub is cut off and grafted again at the proper time.
5. Mr. Burbank is absolutely sincere in all his work. The only thing to be feared is that his health will not hold out under the terrific strain of working with such an immense number of species. Some twenty-five hundred species of plants have received attention in his gardens. The excess of notoriety given him by the newspaper writers had in one way hurt his work as he has trouble in keeping the thousands of visitors from taking all his time, many of whom come only from curiosity. Mr. Burbank's extreme conscientiousness is seen from the fact that he attempts to answer all of the many thousands of letters that come from all parts of the world. Mr. Burbank, for his own health's sake, should unload more work on his helpers and not try to do so much himself.
6. In apples some most interesting work has been accomplished. I had the pleasure of testing apples of fully as high quality as Spitzenburg and Spy, produced by Mr. Burbank. Mr. Burbank's argument was that if these apples were of such excellent quality in the mild climate of California which is not usually considered favorable to producing high quality, that such seedlings, if brought into an apple-growing section, would be the best in quality of any known apples.
7. An interesting example of diverting the life-forces of a plant is seen in the Pomato, which is neither a tomato or a potato in plant, but something intermediate, bearing white-fleshed fruit of good quality. I was not there at the right time to test this. In brief, Mr. Luther Burbank is earnestly endeavoring to produce better flowers and fruits for the public good. If an exaggeration has appeared from the pen of visiting journalists do not blame Mr. Burbank for that. Above all, some of our eastern friends must avoid catching Anti-Burbankitis.
8. Mr. Burbank's courage and persistence in bringing plants together from all parts of the world, and making so many new combinations, is to be commended as it has upset some old ideas as to the relationship of species, and plant-breeders are less hampered by the restrictions of systematists. Plant-breeders now look upon a species as a more or less definite bundle of characteristics, all capable of great modifications.