A Vast Array of Beauty: The Accomplishments of the Father of American Ornamental Plant Breeding, Luther Burbank

Monday, July 22, 2013: 2:20 PM
Springs Salon D/E (Desert Springs J.W Marriott Resort )
Neil O. Anderson , University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN
Richard T. Olsen , USDA-ARS U.S. National Arboretum, Beltsville, MD
Luther Burbank (1873-1926) was a prolific ornamental plant breeder, who worked with 91 genera of ornamentals, from Abutilon to Zinnia, and released nearly 1,000 cultivars to the industry. His work included both herbaceous and woody plant materials and Luther pioneered efforts to breed ornamental, edible vegetables such as corn, tomatoes, and spineless cacti. His most popular ornamental release, the Shasta Daisy hybrids (first released in 1901), is still on the global market. Genera with the highest number of cultivars bred and released by Burbank include Amaryllis, Hippeastrum, and Crinum, followed by Lilium, Hemerocallis, Watsonia, Papaver, Gladiolus, Dahlia, and Rosa. With Lilium, he pioneered breeding the N. American native lily species, particularly those from the Pacific coastal region, and the authority Burbankii is still applied to interspecific hybrids from the cross L. Parryi x L. pardalinum. By 1894, his critics even lauded his successes, stating that he had 3 acres of flowering seedlings with the fragrance carrying five miles away. The vast seedling beds (from sowing 1-3 pounds of lily seed/year) were highly selected by virus and other criteria with selection differentials as high as 75%. He also often sold an entire lot of selected seedlings to the highest bidder, once offering the Burbank Hybrid Lilies lot for US$250K or some of the “very handsome, hardy ones” for US$250 to US$10,000 each. Other flower cultivars also commanded high prices, such as seedling Giant Amaryllis that sold for US$1.55/bulb in 1909. Cacti were another area of emphasis (he released >63 cultivars), from the spineless fruiting and forage types (Opuntia ficus-indica, O. tuna, O. vulgaris) to flowering ornamentals such as O. basilaris, Cereus chilensis, and Echinopsis Mulleri. Interest in cacti during 1909-1915 rivaled the Dutch Tulip mania with exorbitant fees for a single “slab” of a cultivar, speculative investments, controversy with noted cacti specialists (particularly David Griffiths), and lawsuits by The Burbank Company. While most cultivars have been lost, Burbank’s reputation as the Father of American Ornamental Breeding remains admirable from critics and devotees alike.