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