Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Book Review: The Garden of Invention

If you recognize the connection between a potato, a shasta daisy, and a walnut tree, then you may be aware of the impact of the work of Luther Burbank, plant breeder extraordinaire. Luther Burbank was responsible for "inventing" and improving many plants that we take for granted today, and in the early 20th century was regarded with the same awe as were his contemporaries and friends, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

The Garden of Invention is the story of Burbank's life and the early days of plant breeding. It is a book I ordinarily wouldn't pick up to read had I not attended Spring Fling in May ( a gathering of over 50 garden bloggers). At the Friday night reception, I was milling about before dinner, trying to meet as many bloggers as possible. A petite woman introduced herself as Jane Smith, and we began talking. I found out that she was not a blogger, per se, but a writer who had written a biography of Luther Burbank. It wasn't until after dinner that I found out that each of us was given a copy of the book, courtesy of Prof. Smith, which I later had autographed. I appreciate not only Prof. Smith's generosity, but also the chance to read a fascinating book I might otherwise have never read.

Luther Burbank was born in New England in 1949 to a brickmaker, not a farmer, and was a shy child who enjoyed reading Emerson, Thoreau, and Longfellow. Although his family recognized his superior intelligence, as he reached adulthood they feared he would never learn a trade and no doubt never envisioned the career path he would eventually take. Inspired by the writings of Charles Darwin, he eventually decided to raise vegetables to market. After a few years, he discovered one of his potato plants produced superior potatoes and began to market them, the humble beginnings of what would be Burbank's most famous contribution to agriculture--the Russet Burbank potato.

Below: One example of a Burbank creation, the
Shasta Daisy, "Becky"

While still a young man, Burbank moved to the warmer climate of northern California and eventually purchased land in Santa Rosa where he began his adventures in plant breeding by careful observation, plant selection, and experiments in cross-breeding. As his sales of plants and seeds increased, so did his fame, eventually drawing visitors from across the world to his garden where he became known as "The Wizard of Santa Rosa." Although well-respected for his botanical genius, Burbank never achieved the wealth one might expect. Because the U.S. Patent Office did not grant patents to natural products, he was unable to patent any of his new varieties of plants, preventing him from receiving the kind of royalties that surely would have made him a rich man.

The Garden of Invention is more than just a biography of Luther Burbank, however; it is a fascinating history of the end of the 19th century and the early 20th. Meticulously researched, the book provides a wealth of information to explain the impact of Burbank's work and the reason for the reverence accorded him by the public. Prof. Smith reminds us that in the late 19th century, the economy in the U.S. was based primarily on agriculture. It was a time when land grant colleges intended to promote the study of agriculture had only recently been established. Institutions like the University of California at Berkeley, a land grant college, and a small private school, Leland Standford Junior University (later Stanford University) were very interested in Burbank's experiments with plants.

Below: One of my favorite annual for containers, "Raspberry Blast"
petunia, which is a variegated pink. Note the solid fuschia
blooms--perhaps a reverting to one of its parent genes?

It was also a time when food had to be shipped to California around the tip of South America. That fact certainly explains the significance of Burbank's contributions to the development of orchards and vegetable gardens in that state.

It was a time when the word science was first coined, and a controversy began as to whether Luther Burbank was a true scientist, since his studies were not founded in academics but through personal observations. Of course, it also
didn't help that Burbank never revealed to anyone the exact details of HOW he created a new plant.

Burbank liked to talk to his plants, which some found rather eccentric. But nearly everyone who met him was impressed by his basic goodness and decency. He was a philosopher as well as a botanist, and as his reputation grew, people were eager to hear his views on many subjects.

One of the more interesting insights into Burbank's life is Chapter 10, "The Training of the Human Plant." It was a surprise to me to find out that this childless man wrote a book about child rearing at a time when the eugenics movement was gaining popularity. However, anyone frightened by the implications of that term—eugenics—is reassured by quotes from Burbank and Smith’s explanation of his beliefs. In short, he believed that it was the nation’s responsibility to ensure that all children received “the wholesome food and healthy environment needed to make [them] strong” (192). Rather than support any kind of artificial genetic manipulation, Burbank promoted helping every child to reach his or her potential.

“Give them nature. Let their souls drink in all that is pure and sweet…Let nature teach them the lessons of good and proper living, combined with an abundance of well-balanced nourishment. Those children will grow to be the best men and women. Put the best in them by contact with the best outside. They will absorb it as a plant does the sunshine and the dew.” (191-192)

One of the few notable Burbank failures: trying
to develop a spineless prickly pear cactus for cattle feed.

I don't read much nonfiction, and I skim rather
than read gardening books, but A Garden of Invention was a book I truly enjoyed. Jane Smith is an eloquent storyteller whose attention to detail and background information makes this an engrossing story. Gardeners and non-gardeners alike will enjoy reading about the man who changed the world of gardening forever.

Left: The legacy continues . . .

For other reviews of all types of books, check out Barrie Summy's Book Review Club.


  1. Hi to everyone! I've spent so much time working on this book review (which makes me admire Jane Smith's writing of the book even more!) that I haven't been around to visit everyone as I should. With nothing special planned for the weekend and rain in the forecast, I hope to visit everyone over the next few days. I hope you do get a chance to read this book. And to my fellow Americans, a Happy Fourth of July!

  2. Don't stress about visiting. I always enjoy talking to you whenever you pop on and I can talk with you here. First of all, you are quite the lady to mingle and try to meet as many bloggers as possible. This is an admirable trait I think. Second of all-lucky you to meet this author and what a wonderful gesture to give all flingers a book! That is too nice. Luther sounds like quite a guy. I need to look for this book for sure. Great post Rose.

  3. Thank you for drawing the attention to this book. It must have been great to meet so many bloggers!

  4. Thanks for this great review Rose. I look forward to reading my copy that I won from Kylee's drawing. Looks like we owe an awful lot to Mr. Burbank.
    There's nothing like the 4th of July at Yorktown, VA --where freedom was won! Happy 4th!

  5. Rose, your timing couldn't have been better! I was planning to start this book this weekend! It's been on my reading list since the Fling, and now I'm even more excited to read it. Thanks!

  6. Hi Rose, I am glad you reviewed this book. I haven't read it yet. I read the other one we got first. I will dig in and read this one the next hot spell. :)

    I hope you and yours have a great 4th of July too.

  7. Rose, it sounds like an interesting book and how much fun to meet the author. I like how our 2 book review club posts share the common theme of Darwinian Evolution. Burbank’s advice would still resonate today. Great review! Happy 4th!

  8. Hi Rose! I've read most of the book and found it a fascinating read...I loved the photo of those three giants sitting together, Burbank, Edison and Ford...

    It takes time to write a review post like this excellent one and when not writing there's the garden....and the rest of life! So pop over when you get the time and we can hang out.

    Happy Fourth to you and your family!


  9. Well talking to your plants has certainly worked for you!
    Must look out for the book.

  10. Tina, It was really a treat for me to meet the author of this book. We really took home some great gifts, including this book. Next year Spring Fling is in Buffalo; I hope to go, and I hope you'll think about it.

    Reader Wil, It was a wonderful time meeting so many bloggers that I read on a regular basis. I sometimes think I spend way too much time here, but I'm always learning something new!

    Janet, I knew very little about Luther Burbank before reading this book; I had a murky memory of him and George Washington Carver, and couldn't remember who did what:)

    Rose, Glad I timed this right! I thought it would take me weeks to read it, but I really became engrossed in it, and read it in less than a week.

    Lisa, I haven't started the other book, but plan to soon. Hope you have a great Fourth, too!

    Sarah, It was great to meet the author. I learned so much about Burbank from this book; I can understand why people admired him so much.

    Gail, I loved that picture, too! I should have mentioned that Ford included lots of Burbank material in his museum at Greenfield Village. I DID spend a lot of time on this review...I can't imagine writing such a detailed book! Enjoy the Fourth!

    Maggie May, I talk to plants, my dogs, myself... I hope someone/something is listening:) Will be over to visit soon.

  11. Sounds like a talented, creative man and a most interesting book.

  12. Rose, I had heard thru the grapevine the Spring Fling would be in Buffalo, we may just make it depending on when it is. It just so happens that when we head to Maine we take the northerly route which takes us thru Buffalo. We had so much fun visiting the Falls last year. That is a great location for a fling for all who haven's seen the falls. Plus, I do talk to a blogger there (Dan) and it would be neat to visit. I am wondering how Buffalo got chosen?

  13. Sounds like an interesting book Rose. I probably would like it cause I usually only read non-fiction.

  14. Hi, Rose. I'm in the middle of the book, at the point where Burbank is getting ready to move to California. I expect I'll finish it in the next week or so! It's a great read, and I also enjoyed meeting the author at the spring fling and spending a few minutes talking to her!

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  15. Rose, you get an A+ for this review. Makes me want to get started on it right away. :) I finally finished the 'Quest' so am ready to start this one, as Lisa says when the next hot spell comes.

    The book review club is another reason I enjoy blogging. It gives me an opportunity to learn about books I might not think about reading.

  16. You have outdone yourself, dear Rose, tempting us with your wonderful book review and stunning photos. (Have you ever thought of book reviews as a career ... you have a gift with the pen ;) Happy 4th!

  17. This is exactly the kind of book I wouldn't think to read. But, now, after your review, I can see how I'd love it. And I'm planting this weekend!

  18. Thanks so much for this summary, Rose! I admit I got the book out of the library before spring fling and didn't finish it as I admit I have somewhat of a lack of attention span and don't always get though books (this reflects not on the author but on me). Yet I liked Jane and really wanted to read the book, but never got back to it. Between blogs and magazine articles and web stories, my attention span has been shortened. So thanks for putting it in a nutshell for us!

  19. Hey Rose, that's a very interesting review. I knew nothing of Burbank's history and always assumed he was an academic. I have to admit not knowing about his potato either. It is wonderful the thing we learn on blogs;)

  20. Oh wow I forgot it was nearly 4th July! Happy one to you too Rose. Where has this year gone?


  21. What a well-written review, Rose! It makes me want to rush out and buy the book. Interesting person Burbank and Jane Smith sounds delightful! Why don't you do book reviews for Amazon and get paid for it? I don't know how, but do know of a fellow blogger who does just that!
    Have a wonderful weekend and happy gardening.
    Oh - I love those petunias, even the solid fushia looks good among the variegated ones.

  22. Janie, I didn't know how talented he was until I read the book!

    Tina, I was hoping you might work this into your traveling plans to Maine. There are two Buffalo bloggers that I know of who volunteered; Buffalo has a very large garden walk in July, apparently.

    Susie, This was a departure for me, because I usually read only fiction.

    Carol, This book was so much more interesting than I expected. And yes, it was great to meet Jane Smith herself.

    Beckie, I haven't been doing much reading this summer, either. I picked this one hot day when I didn't feel like doing anything else, then got hooked.

    Joey, Thank you for the nice compliment! It does sound like my kind of career--getting paid to read books:)

    Barrie, Reading about Luther Burbank made me appreciate all the different types of flowers we can buy these days.

    Monica, I'm often the same way. I had time to get into the book, and once I start something I'm interested in I keep reading. This is the type of book, though, that you can go back to later and read in sections when you have time.

    Marnie, I knew very little about Burbank, too. I wasn't sure if he bred peanuts or potatoes:)

    Suburbia, This year has flown by. No big plans here for the Fourth, just being lazy:)

    Wendy, I don't know how one gets to be a reviewer; sounds like something I would enjoy. The "Raspberry Blast" is a wonderful performer, beautiful in containers.

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  24. Hi Rose, wasn't that a terrific book! I just finished reading it myself. Like you, I might not have read it, or perhaps even known about it, if not for Spring Fling.

    I loved the book. It was wonderfully-researched,endlessly fascinating, and delightfully entertaining. I could hardly put it down.

    Have a happy 4th!

  25. Happy Fourth of July Weekend Rose. Thanks for sharing your review with all of us. Sounds like an interesting read. Take care. :)

  26. Thanks so much for this comprehensive and thoughtful review. I haven't even cracked this book yet, and now am much more likely to! It looked interesting but I just hadn't gotten around to it.

  27. Thank you for the great review!

  28. Hi Rose, what a compelling review of the book we received. I had loaned mine to a book loving voracious reader friend. I might have to ask for it back. :-)

  29. I'm glad that Burbank wasn't in it for the fortune and probably not the fame either. I will definitely be looking for this book.

  30. Hi Rose....not quite sure how I missed this post....

    Sounds like an extremely interesting book....fascinating topic....

    Your reviews are amazing Rose. I would not know where to begin......your writing is stimulating and informative......

    Just out of interest how long would it take you to do a post like this one????

  31. Thank you for an excellent book review. I shall check my library for this one.
    You gave such an excellent review I am looking forward to reading.
    How nice to have met the author too.
    Thanks again,

  32. Linda, I'm glad you enjoyed the book as well. So much fascinating history, and as you say, entertaining, too.

    Racquel, I was surprised at how interesting the book was.

    EAL, If I hadn't met Jane Smith, I probably wouldn't have picked up this book first, but I'm glad I did. I want to read the other one we were given as well.

    Phoenix, Thanks for stopping by!

    Frances, Definitely ask for it back!

    W2W, Burbank would have liked to have been able to patent his "inventions," but he was a true genius--more interested in what he could learn.

    Cheryl,Thank you for such kind words. I don't even know how much time I spent--I took some notes while reading and probably spent about 3-4 hours writing this, including fighting with Blogger over the spacing:)

    Sherry, This is a book I think you and Cheryl would both enjoy. He was a man who delighted in nature.

  33. Rose, I'm almost finished with the book and have enjoyed every minute of it. It's just so fascinating! It's such an unlikely subject so I couldn't decide if it was just me or the book but now that you've reviewed it likewise, I'd say it's Jane Smith's writing talent for sure.


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