Name: Luther Burbank
Birth Date: March 7, 1849 – April 11, 1926
Job Functions: Horticulturist
Known For: Idaho potato and eight hundred new varieties of fruits, flowers, grains, grasses, and other plants.
Influenced By: Charles Darwin (My mini biography of Charles Darwin) who is also among the nine men Napoleon Hill used as invisible mentors
Influential Book: Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication by Charles Darwin
Introduction to Luther Burbank
Continuing our theme for National Mentoring Month to feature one of Napoleon Hill’s nine invisible counselors, today we focus on Luther Burbank. Just to recap, Napoleon Hill, who wrote the timeless classic, Think and Grow Rich, had nine men that he used as invisible mentors. He studied these nine men very closely, and as a result, was able to anticipate how they would respond when he faced a problem.
The intent of this series is for you to get to know these nine men, and perhaps borrow an idea or two from them. Luther Burbank was greatly influenced by Charles Darwin’s book, Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Using the concept of survival of the fittest, and artificial selection, how might you trim your products and services, or even create a super product or service?
In this mini biography of Luther Burbank, you will learn some of the major steps he took to acquire professional success. Although Burbank had little formal science education, in his lifetime, through artificial selection and hybridization, he was able to develop over eight hundred new varieties of fruits, flowers, grains, grasses, and other plants. When he moved to Santa Rosa, California, he experimented with a variety of techniques – grafting, hybridization, and cross-breeding to create new varieties of fruits and ornamental flowers.
Luther Burbank’s Steps to Success
- As a youth, Luther Burbank worked continuously to understand the details of plant breeding, paying close attention to small differences between plants.
- His attention to detail, enabled him to later perform advanced techniques such as hybridization and grafting, despite not having a degree or advanced training in botany.
- Attended the Lancaster Academy for a year, where he was first introduced to Charles Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, which had a profound impact on his life. He learned about artificial selection, a method that Darwin, and plant and animal breeders used to develop desirable characteristics in domestic plants and animals. It is worthy to note that Burbank borrowed Darwin’s book from the public library in Lancaster, Massachusetts.
- When he was 21 years old, he bought a 17-acre farm in Lunenberg, Massachusetts, which allowed him to begin his work in botany, and to test Darwin’s theory. In no time, under a year, Burbank developed a high-yielding potato seedling, a super potato, which is now known as the Idaho potato.
- He closely observed and inspected his experiments, so he noticed “a seed ball containing twenty seeds, which he planted, and after applying Darwin’s principle of selection, he saved only four plants that produced better potatoes than could then be found on the market.” Scientists: Their Life and Work
- He sold the rights to the Idaho potato, then moved to California in 1875 where he bought a 4-acre plot of land near Santa Rosa, starting a nursery and greenhouse. Burbank was seeking a climate that was conducive to year-round cultivation. He realized that he had to do things in a bigger way so he purchased an 8-acre plot of land for growing plants.
- Fulfilled an order for twenty thousand bearing prune trees from seed in nine months, a feat most would have thought impossible.
- His experiments in horticulture – growing fruits, vegetables, flowers, and ornamental plants – allowed him to shape his thinking and ideas about plant breeding and genetics. As we later learn, because of the lack of formal education in botany, some of his ideas were incorrect – he didn’t understand how genetics worked.
- Used his natural talents to make major contributions to the field of plant breeding. Specifically, he developed over eight hundred new varieties of fruits, flowers, grains, grasses, and other plants. To improve plums, Burbank tested more than 30,000 varieties through hybridization to produce 113 new varieties.
- One of the activities that contributed to his success is that he was prepared to run a wider range of experimental varieties, for a longer period of study, and had a greater number of experiments underway at a given time. Many of his experiments ran for over 20 years. This gave him a depth and breadth of experience from which to work.
- Because of his contributions to agriculture, and his work in hybridization, Burbank received a lucrative five-year Carnegie Foundation grant of $10,000 for each year.
Biggest Accomplishments – Why Luther Burbank’s Contribution Matters
- During his 50 year career, Luther Burbank worked with flowers, fruits, trees, cacti, grasses, grains, and vegetables, and using his knowledge of artificial selection, was able to develop or introduce more than eight hundred varieties. As was pointed out in Luther Burbank’s biography in Plant Sciences, that’s a plant every 23 days based on his career.
- Among his achievements which are used today: Paradox Walnut, fast-growing hardwood tree for the furniture industry, Santa Rosa plum, a complex hybrid, still among the most cultivated varieties in the United States and the quadruple hybrid Shasta daisy.
- Because of his many achievements, his birthday is celebrated as Arbor Day in California.
Lessons from Luther Burbank
- Attention to detail and perseverance. After he inspected the plants in his experiments, from the most promising plants, using the theory of artificial selection, Burbank continued to select, hybridize, reselect, and re-hybridize for several generations until he developed a marketable plant.
- Formal education matters, but experimentation and informal learning can take you a long way. Using his natural talents and keen awareness of breeding plants, he was able to develop stronger hybrids. For 25 years, he experimented with plant varieties, developing improved stocks of peach, pear, prune, blackberry, plum, tomato, and other plants, which he sold to commercial growers.
- Learn from your mistakes: He worked by trial and error. “He would cross-pollinate the flowers of two trees by hand, and plant all the resulting seeds. He would then select the dozen or so most promising seedlings to cross with other plants. With fruit trees, he would graft cuttings from his seedlings to mature trees in order to obtain fruit sooner.” American Decades
- Customer satisfaction matters. Through the word-of-mouth of satisfied customers and press reports, Burbank marketed his catalogues to commercial growers.
Luther Burbank: Ideas That Matter
- Formal education is great, but experience is even better. Do not allow the lack of a formal education to prevent you from rising to greatness. Luther Burbank had only a high school education, but he had a passion for and a natural talent with botany. He exploited his passion and natural talent to make a substantial contribution. After he moved to California, at one time, Burbank was running as many as 3,000 experiments involving more than one million plants.
- Revisit an old idea, and adapt it to your current situation. Charles Darwin is well-known for his theories on the origin of species and survival of the fittest. The natural scientist conducted several experiments on artificial selection. Luther Burbank was influenced by Darwin’s work, and especially, Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Could the ideas from this book, or other old ideas be the impetus for your greatness? Not sure how to find old ideas? Why not join me on my journey to a classic education.
Why would Luther Burbank make a good invisible mentor?
- Luther Burbank would make a great invisible mentor because he was able to stand on the shoulder of a giant so that he could see farther, this allowed him to make a substantial contribution to agriculture and agricultural science.
- One negative aspect is that Burbank was very secretive with his research, although he allowed others to visit his nursery, greenhouses and experimental gardens if they were willing to pay an entrance fee of $10. He also allowed evolutionary scientists such as Hugo DeVries, David Starr Jordan, and Vernon Kellogg to visit his gardens to collect data from his experiments.
Application of Ideas That Matter
Use the concept of artificial selection to create a super product and service. Prune away the weakest elements of your product and service offerings.
His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Applications (1914-1915)
The Training of a Human Plant
Dictionary of American Biography
Encyclopedia of World Biography
Science and Its Times
Scientists – Their Lives and Works