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The Experimental Horticulture of Luther Burbank

Few people today who have not been to his still vibrant gardens in Santa Rosa, California, know anything about the marvelous and charming life of Luther Burbank, perhaps the greatest experimental horticulturist of all time. He was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts, on March 7, 1849, and by the time of his death in 1926 at the age of 77, he had introduced more than 800 new varieties of plants, including more than 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains, and hundreds of ornamental flowers. His publication in 1893 of "New Creations in Fruits and Flowers" brought him worldwide renown. At one time, he was carrying on as many as 3,000 experiments involving millions of plants. He was interested in the “mass production” of certain varieties, and the hybridization of certain other “uncrossable” varieties. Burbank was less focused on personal gain than his friends, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and his great preoccupation was to benefit mankind, for which he was honored by an Act of Congress. The rights to the Burbank potato, developed to mitigate the Irish potato blight epidemic, were sold for $150. His many patents were granted only posthumously to his estate, and he asked to be buried in an unmarked grave. Yet, many biotechnologists of today are enormously indebted to the fruits of his literally imperishable work.

One of his chief goals was to increase the world’s food supply, developing for example, an improved spineless cactus to provide forage for livestock in desert regions. How did he do it? According to Burbank himself, he fixed his loving gaze on it every morning, whispering, “You have nothing to fear. Relax and trust me. No longer will you need your defensive thorns. I am your friend for always. I love you and I will protect you.” In fact, Burbank was one of the world’s greatest lovers. He said, “I love everybody. I love everything! I love humanity. I love flowers. I love children. I love my dog. I am a lover of the man Jesus. I am a lover of all things that help."

But some people prefer to remember Burbank for those aspects of his personality and character that were so very much in keeping with the so-called “scientific” point of view of the present day. He was an unabashed freethinker, saying "I nominate myself as an infidel, as a challenge to thought for those who are asleep." As one commentator has noted, Burbank was a “naturalist” through and through. When the celebrated Scopes trial of 1925 pitted Clarence Darrow and the theory of evolution, against William Jennings Bryan and the Rock of Ages, Burbank was moved at last to declare himself "an infidel,” saying “I do not believe what has been served to me to believe. I am a doubter, a questioner, a skeptic." When Henry Ford publicized his views in favor of reincarnation, Burbank replied that "A theory of personal resurrection or reincarnation of the individual is untenable when we but pause to consider the magnitude of the idea.” Causing the religious blood of the nation to boil with righteous anger and hatred, he said that, “as a scientist, I can not help feeling that all religions are on a tottering foundation. None is perfect or inspired.” Then, practically quoting the Buddha, he said, “The idea that a good God would send people to a burning hell is utterly damnable to me. I don't want to have anything to do with such a God."

Luther Burbank, however, was not a scientist cut from the same dull cloth as the narrow-minded practitioners of today. His science paid homage to an ideal that few of these can own with any honest conviction. For he said, "The scientist is a lover of truth for the very love of truth itself, wherever it may lead." And quite apart from saying sweet-nothings to his cactus in the morning, he apparently employed a variety of unorthodox methods in his professional work that he never fully explained. Brought up by a telepathic mother, Burbank admitted in 1923 that "I inherited my mother's ability and so did one of my sisters." Indeed, it seems that he rarely resorted to the telephone to communicate with his sister Emma, relying instead on telepathy. The typical modern scientist regards anything beyond the benchmark of our five human senses as the silly nonsense of ESP. But, with regard to the vegetable kingdom alone, Burbank believed in “more than twenty” senses, most of these relating plants to the elements of wind, rain, soil, sunlight, rival species, and pollinating animals. Shortly before his death, Burbank told his friend, the yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, that he believed that plants have minds, which if simpler than the human, were yet of the same essence. He spoke of “men as trees walking,” and of the Earth as an evolving and living organism. He said, "I see humanity now as one vast plant, needing for its highest fulfillment only love."

The typical run-of-the-mill scientists of our own time makes of science just another religion, justifying Oscar Wilde’s jibe that, “the history of science is the history of dead religions.” Thus, our modern scientist may possibly learn something by substituting the word “science” for “religion” in the following quotation in which Luther Burbank implicitly expressed his creed. "The chief trouble with religion has been too much dependence upon names or words. People fail to discriminate. They do not think. Generally people who think for themselves, instead of thinking according to the rules laid down by others, are considered unfaithful to the established order. In that respect I, too, differ with the established order and established designations."

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