A vast array of beauty: The accomplishments of the father of American ornamental breeding, Luther Burbank

Neil O. Anderson, Richard T. Olsen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Luther Burbank (1849–1926) was a prolific ornamental plant breeder, who worked with 91 genera of ornamentals, from Abutilon to Zinnia, and released nearly 1000 cultivars to the industry. His innovative work included both herbaceous and woody plant materials as well as ornamental 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. This article focuses on Luther Burbank’s breeding techniques with ornamental plants and how both the germplasms that he developed and his methodologies used permeate modern flower breeding. 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 North American native lily species, particularly those from the Pacific coastal region, producing the eponymous Lilium × burbankii. Burbank’s breeding enterprise was designed to be selfsustaining based on profits from selling the entire product line of a new cultivar or crop only to wholesale firms, who then held exclusives for propagation and selling, although financial hardships necessitated selling retail occasionally. Entire lots of selected seedlings were sold to the highest bidder with Burbank setting the price in his annual catalogs such as the Burbank Hybrid Lilies lot for U.S. $250,000 or some of the ‘‘very handsome, hardy ones’’ for U.S. $250 to U.S. $10,000 each. Other flower cultivars also commanded high prices such as seedling Giant Amaryllis that sold for U.S. $1.55/bulb in 1909. Cacti were another area of emphasis (he released more than 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 1909–15 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. Although most cultivars have been lost, Burbank’s reputation as the Father of American Ornamental Breeding remains admirable from critics and devotees alike.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-188
Number of pages28
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2015

Bibliographical note

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  • Convenience
  • Exclusivity
  • Flower color
  • Flower power
  • Flower surround
  • Fragrance
  • Intergeneric hybridization
  • Interspecific hybridization
  • Mass breeding
  • Shasta daisy
  • Spineless cacti
  • Sterility


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