15 Comments

A TWISTED TALE (2)


french fries mcdon alds

If you’ve had fries at McDonald’s, you’ve likely eaten a relative of a Luther Burbank creation, a Russet potato he invented in the 1870’s. He was also working on another large scale project—the thornless blackberry.

He wanted to take the rough spots out of nature; kind of the parallel to his spineless cactus or his stonelesss plum.

Burbank traded seeds with fellow collectors all around the world. In a package from India, he found seeds for a huge blackberry with an even larger flavor. He named it the Himalayan Giant and it grew like nobody’s business–but only in temperate areas, like the Pacific Coast, and the area around Puget Sound was ideal. Our little farmhouse in Kirkland on the shores of Lake Washington was perfect for them.

Burbank’s business was thriving and he was hanging out with people like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He had suddenly become an international celebrity. He was so successful at breeding plants that he became interested in applying the same principles–to people.

He started selling a new book that he’d written in his catalogs, “The Training of the Human Plant”. He considered the U.S. the perfect place to practice eugenics, because at the turn of the century there were immigrants coming from all over the world. Though he had no training in eugenics, he thought he could apply the same principles as in his plant breeding.

Burbanks’s theory of genetics was that an organism’s surroundings left an imprint that was passed on to future generations. For that reason he wrote that children should spend most of their time outdoors, communing with Nature. Perhaps that’s why a Mercer Island boarding school for troubled boys was named after him in 1931. Seattle boys running amok, were sent to the Luther Burbank School on the shores of Lake Washington where they learned to farm.

Today only the dormitory remains in what is now Luther Burbank Park. And the only thing running amok are the Himalayan blackberries that escaped those turn of the century berry farms and gardens.

Sasha Shaw, noxious weed expert with King County, “I mean there is not a part of western Washington that is not touched by this plant.” The Himalayan blackberry erodes soil and crowds out native plants and animals. “It can grow in dry soils, wet soils, and it grows into the forest. It grows in full sun. There’s not a place it can’t succeed.

Birds and other animals spread the seeds far and wide. Those seeds can live in the ground for years waiting to germinate. And once the plant is growing, when the tip of a vine touches the ground–it can create a new plant.

Luther Burbank never got around to breeding humans, but it appears that he may have introduced a master race—of blackberries.

Thanks to Ann Dornfeld for the reminder

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15 comments on “A TWISTED TALE (2)

  1. So interesting. I never would have thought of the blackberry as an invasive plant, but there you are. Now, I’m wondering if my picking farm plants the same thornless berry. They have several varieties, including the famous, butvery thorny, Kiowa. But the thornless berries are my favorite. They’re not only easy to pick (moreso because they trellis them) but they’re always among the most tasty. Some big berries can be a little drab, especially if there’s been too much rain and not enough sun to sweeten them, but the thornless come through every year.

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    • I have picked blackberries in No. Calif. and in Southern Oregon which were a delight to pick. Thorny, but large,sweet and juicy. I always looked forward to blackberry season until we moved to Washington. Strangely enough, though the vines on our property were bad and even the berries weren’t great, but down the road a bit in a large vacant lot where I dumped leaves by the barrow full, the blackberries were lovely! A different variety.

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    • I can understand the problem. Much like the hedgerows in England I guess. What I hadn’t realized was the extent of the problem all over. We couldn’t get rid of them in Washington. We had never seen it in Oregon or No. California and it was a pleasure to look forward to. I loved reading about your farm experiences, and it was a surprise to know blackberries grew in Holland.

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    • Funnily enough our daughter has a home on Mercer Island where she lived for 30 plus years. We have been to the Luther Burbank Park many times. Small world.

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  2. People have some wild and wacky theories, don’t they?

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  3. Love this Aunt Kayti! So interesting. You write so beautifully. Next week I would like to come visit and perhaps you will want to go out for a lunch! Love to Uncle Sam! Love, Cindy

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  4. The blackberry in Australia is foremost on the list of noxious weeds. Especially the milder climate of Tasmania it resulted in almost overgrowing that state.
    Back in the days of living on our farm, the blackberry along the Wollondilly river formed a barrier so thick that cattle from our neighbours on the other side could not go through it. During droughts, our paddocks were always greener and with just alpacas grazing, it was tempting for cows to swim across and try get a nice feed.
    The blackberry must originally have escaped from Europe but, boy oh boy it is the arch enemy of farmers in Australia now.

    I remember as a boy picking blackberries in Holland. It was part of summer’s delights. A great post, Kayti. Nice to read history of Luther Burbank.

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  5. Oh, I rue the day Luther Burbank decided to experiment with the blackberry! I live in the pacific north west (up the coast from Seattle). I’m an avid gardener, and my life has been plagued by the tenacious establishment of blackberry vines in my gardens! Yes, they are big and flavorful! Yes, they are a delight to the jam and jelly maker! But they are the bane of a gardener’s life!

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  6. Masterpiece!!

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  7. Although I wrote a report on Luther Burbank when I was in the 5 th grade, i had no idea of the extent of his reach outside of Santa Rosa. Can we say he was a pioneer of the GMO movement? Nice to see both Steve and Cindy commenting on your blog!
    Everyone caught loads of salmon.

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    • It is good to hear from all of you! I am fairly sure that his research into eugenics and breeding superior humans would not be a suitable subject for 5th grade and learning that his boy’s school was on Mercer Island was a big surprise to me. We have been in that park many times.

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