The Origin and Evolution of the Burbank Potato

An American icon, the ‘Russet Burbank’ revolutionized the potato industry of the past and continues to be one of the most profitable potatoes to this day

Russet Burbank Potato

The ‘Russet Burbank’ Potato is an American icon.

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In 1875 when Luther Burbank accepted $125 from James H. Gregory for the tubers and rights to the white potato he had recently discovered, Burbank thought he was getting a pretty good deal. The equivalent to almost $3,000 today, it was a hefty sum for a potato, though hardly the largest amount ever paid for one. Except that this potato is now worth more than $1.5 billion in the United States. Annually. “Burbank’s Seedling,” as Gregory subsequently named it, became one of the most important potatoes in the world and an American icon. Like many great plant stories, it did not occur all at once, involved many different players, and a combination of good horticultural skills and luck. Lots of it.

The Irish potato blight began in September 1845 and was particularly devastating to the dependent Irish population, who had adopted this crop en masse as a highly valued nutritional staple able to grow in a wide range of soils and climates, making it quite versatile. The blight was caused by a fungus, phytopthera infestans, well known to gardeners today as late blight. The blight actually originated in North America around 1842, had traveled to New England by 1844, and was introduced into Europe from imported varieties meant to offer disease resistance to other problems. The blight quickly spread and greatly reduced crops by as much as 75 percent throughout the northern temperate regions. While it did not completely eliminate the varieties currently being cultivated, it turned the potato from a significant food source to a highly disease prone and poor yielding crop. Potatoes had initially been viewed as a curiosity in Europe, and like other solanaceous plants, were often regarded with trepidation. Before the mid-19th century, the potato had become a fixed staple in many diets. Following the blight’s devastation, it quickly became recognized that new varieties must be developed from stock of new origination from South America. A blight, however severe, was not going to curtail American ingenuity.

The subtleties of inheritance and plant genetics were not well understood in the mid-19th century since Mendel’s experiments with peas were not published until 1865 and not “rediscovered” until the end of the century when Darwin’s books on domestication were published later, and the more complex aspects of genetics and mutations not known until the early 20th century by De Vries and others. Yet anyone who spent time in the garden could easily observe some of the changes that took place in seed-borne offspring through intentional and unintentional crossing. This was the beginning of the modern age of plant breeding, and various crosses and selections were being made from a more widely available stock of seed from around the world carried by emigrants, ship captains, plant hunters, and travelers with increasing frequency.

Likewise, the cause of the potato decline was not understood and was the source of much speculation. The science of what plant diseases were, how they were transmitted, and their treatment was largely undeveloped. Horticulturists generally agreed that some degradation of the potato occurred in part due to the constant use of asexual propagation from cuttings, a remarkably perceptive conclusion given that the potato fungus was contained within the vegetative parts of the potato and then spread by spores in the field during the summer. True seed propagation was the common mode of reproducing most vegetable crops in northern latitudes. The use of potato sets, whole or cut potato tubers for propagation, often called then and now “seed,” was referred to by some authors as “the unnatural office of perpetuating its kind.” Theories abounded as to the causes of “plague,” which ranged from “atmospheric influences” to various forms of poor treatment of the tubers at harvest and during storage.

The conclusion reached was that, like other familiar crops, they must be reproduced by true seed (known today as True Potato Seed or TPS), by sexual, not asexual, vegetative reproduction. Anyone who has grown potatoes knows they often flower and sometimes produce “seed balls,” a fruit botanically known as a berry filled with seeds. Plants grown from the seed tend to produce a diversity of offspring with greater genetic variation and possibly greater disease resistance, and are not carriers of potato blight. Some varieties commonly produce a few fruit, while it is rare in other varieties.

In the late 1840s, Reverend Chauncy Goodrich, a minister from Utica, New York, and the chaplain at the New York State Lunatic Asylum, decided to find a better potato, recognizing the limiting consequences of blight in the United States. He, too, believed that the answer could be found in true seed propagated potatoes. He obtained a number of clones from the consul at the American Consulate in Panama in 1851, at a supposed expenditure of $200. One of these cultivars, ‘Rough Purple Chili,’ was the most promising. It is likely this cultivar originated from Chile, possibly brought to Panama from California-bound ships.

From 1849 to 1854 he originated about 5,400 cultivars, of which only a few he deemed to be worthy. He ultimately grew about 12,000 seedlings (some sources claim 16,000 seedlings). From ‘Rough Purple Chili’ he collected naturally fertilized seed balls produced in 1852 and grew out seedlings in 1853. He whittled these numbers down to seven cultivars for sale, one of which was considered particularly worthy — ‘Garnet Chili.’ After four years of grow outs, it was released and widely circulated in the Northeast. ‘Garnet Chili’ was light red in color with smooth skin and excellent taste. Agricultural reports in 1857 and 1858 were generally highly favorable, remarking at the yield and disease resistance this potato possessed, even in the mediocre growing conditions of 1857. Up until this point, while lots of new potato cultivars were coming to market, none of them possessed the qualities, especially taste, that were deemed essential and were present in the preblight cultivars. Goodrich remarked that ‘Garnet Chili’ produced almost no seed balls.

The new standard achieved by ‘Garnet Chile’ was an extremely significant development in the history of the domestic potato for the future development of the potato industry, farmers and gardeners alike. ‘Rough Purple Chili’ became the progenitor for over 100 North American cultivars. Similar breeding work took place in Europe using Chilean varieties and crosses from Goodrich’s work. Today, the genes of ‘Rough Purple Chili’ are found in more than 400 cultivars.

A decade later, another breeder, Albert Bresee from Hubbardton, Vermont, produced a new cultivar from ‘Rough Purple Chile’ and called it ‘Early Rose,’ with a limited release in 1867. According to B.K. Bliss and Son catalog of 1869, ”It has become the standard variety for earliness, quality and productiveness ...” Bresee’s potato cultivars were considered to be so good that seed stock of his potatoes were at first sold for extravagant prices, creating a kind of potato fever or potato mania in Vermont. Prices for potatoes reached outlandish amounts, according to reports; for example, $825 for 16 potatoes in one instance, seven potatoes for $750 in another. Bresee supposedly was able to sell a bushel of ‘Early Rose’ seed for $1,000. More modest prices could easily be $65 or more for a bushel of seed potato. Guards had to be posted around potato fields to protect crops of these new releases, which was considered cheap insurance compared to the loss of stock. People in Vermont and elsewhere made lots of money from raising potatoes. Bresee’s farm was supposedly so prone to theft that he had to move his experimental plots to more remote locations in New York State after his first four releases. The prices and stories surrounding the Vermont potato obsession became the stuff of legend and national attention.

Enter Mr. Burbank. Luther Burbank grew up in the rural area of Lancaster, Massachusetts, on a family farm owned by his father and uncle. He had some informal experiences with gardening when young and became influenced by Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt, German naturalist and plant explorer. While he had begun medical studies under the tutelage of a local doctor, at 18 he abandoned this at the death of his father. Three years later in 1871 with a small amount of money from his father’s estate, he bought 17 acres of land in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, and started truck farming, mostly vegetables. Here he began to hone his powers of observation, combined with horticultural skills, and he began to experiment with breeding plants, distinctly as a sideline.

He attempted some intentional crosses with flowering potato plants, and none of these produced fruit. Then he noticed one seed ball developing in a patch of ‘Early Rose’ potatoes. Versions of the story state that Burbank discovered the seed ball in a patch of ‘Early Rose’ planted at his mother’s garden, whose residence adjoined Burbank’s property. ‘Early Rose,’ like its parent, ‘Garnet Chili,’ rarely set seed; he knew this was a rare occurrence and an opportunity to grow and select some of his own plants. Day after day he visited this plant, observing the development of the ripening fruit awaiting the harvest of his treasure.

One day he went to visit his prized fruit and it was gone. He searched around the plant and could not locate it. He asked some people to help him search, and two hours later the seed ball was located 20 feet from the parent plant. He speculated a bird had attempted to fly away with it but dropped it after finding it too weighty. Other versions state a dog must have run through the patch and disturbed the seed ball. This is one incident in a long line of luck that seemed to follow Burbank most of his life.

The seed ball contained 23 seeds, every one of which germinated, producing 23 plants. According to Burbank, “When I dug the potatoes in the fall I found that one had white eyes and the rest of the body was red, and another had red eyes and the rest of the body white, while most of the other plants contained red eyes. Another had prominent eyes and eyebrows, the eyes were clear to the center of the body. As quick as I dug I knew I had a prize.”

According to Burbank, in 1873 he then sent a sack of this unnamed cultivar to B.K. Bliss and Company. Bliss rejected the cultivar because it was so sweet and nutty that they thought the potatoes must have gotten partly frozen. He then sent a sample to James H. Gregory of James J. H. Gregory and Sons Seed Company of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Gregory was interested in the potato and asked Luther to visit him. Burbank boldly asked for $500 for the entire seed stock, and Gregory balked, offering him $125. It is likely Burbank was familiar with some of the wild prices paid for potatoes a few years earlier and figured his discovery was just as worthy. Since Burbank needed the money, he accepted and gave Gregory his entire seed stock, except for 10 tubers for further experimentation and some tubers that had been stolen from his garden. Gregory dubbed this potato "Burbank’s Seedling" (otherwise simply known as "Burbank") and released it in 1876. He waxed eloquent about the potato, saying, “In quality it is firm grained, of excellent flavor either boiled or baked, is dry and floury … ”

The introduction of this potato established Burbank’s reputation as a plant breeder, or in this case, as someone with the ability to discover great cultivars. Over Burbank’s lifetime many horticulturists and scientists complained about Burbank and his breeding methods. Burbank did not keep careful notes and often relied on memory to track his voluminous plant crosses. Ultimately, it was Burbank’s persistence with experimentation, excellent observation skills, and his keen plant intuition that made him a great plant breeder.

In 1875 Burbank went to California to set up a new life and get more involved in breeding, using the proceeds of the sale of his farm and the $125 he received from Gregory. A few years later, around 1880, Burbank wrote to Gregory asking if he might receive some additional compensation for the very profitable potato he had given to Gregory. Burbank was having “hard luck” in California. However, Gregory had a slightly different view of his relationship to "Burbank’s Seedling" and complained emphatically to Burbank. He began by telling Burbank how the promotion of the potato had harmed "Burbank" by taking it out of Gregory’s hands, thus reducing its profitability; how much better ‘Early Ohio’ potato has done for him, purchased at the same price and that the potato seed selling business was “unprofitable and a nuisance.” Gregory finished by declaring, “ I have stated the facts in my case and now enclose $25.00; for whatever I write I know you will feel some compensation is due you.”

However Gregory felt about the potato, there is no doubt that it rapidly spread around the country. Under certain conditions "Burbank’s Seedling" tended to grow “knobby” or “horny,” a trait noted by Gregory in correspondence with Burbank in 1877. An additional problem was that it tended to produce a relatively high number of seconds, or culls. By 1883 "Burbank" was extensively planted in New York State, at that time the largest potato growing state in the country. In a reply to a survey, farmers consistently said that "Burbank" was one of their most popular and prolific cultivars. By 1900, the USDA estimated it contributed $17 million annually to the U.S. economy. According to Burbank, in 1924 so many of his potato were grown that it would require a freight train filled with potatoes 14,000 miles long — or 600,000,000 bushels, to hold all that had been cultivated through 1921.

The next genesis of "Burbank" potato occurred around the turn of the 20th century with the appearance of a russet potato, now called ‘Russet Burbank,’ which ultimately radically changed the world of potatoes and potato consumption. The precise origination of the ‘Burbank’ potato is unclear, and by 1902 a cultivar known as ‘Netted Gem’ was released by L.L. May and Company of St. Paul, Minnesota. May’s catalogue states that ‘Netted Gem’ was discovered seven years earlier by a “ranchman” in Montana, found growing in a field that had a year earlier been planted with three cultivars: ‘Burbank,’ ‘Maggie Murphy,’ and ‘Ohio.’ This potato had been carefully saved and increased until it was sold to May’s.

Russeting was a characteristic that was thought to be an indication of quality. While regarded by some people as a chance seedling of "Burbank’s Seedling," this russeted tuber was a new mutation. The ‘Burbank’ potato, like its offspring and predecessors, do not readily produce seed, ultimately confounding breeders in their efforts to breed new varieties from the ‘Russet Burbank.’ By 1910, ‘Netted Gem’ was synonymous with ‘Russet Burbank,’ and for decades these names were often used interchangeably. Today the names “Gem” or “Gemmy” are still used in New Brunswick, Canada. ‘Russet Burbank’ was also known as California, English Golden, Idaho potato, Idaho Baker, Idaho Russet, Klathmath Netted Gem, and others.

This potato was recognized as a prolific yielder, producing many even-sized tubers, often obtaining a very large size, a long keeper with little bruising and dry flesh, although a late season variety. It was in commercial production in the Yakima Valley, Washington, by 1907 and was trialed extensively before 1915 when it was already considered a well-known cultivar in Idaho and elsewhere. Like its "Burbank Seedling" parent, it too could producer knobby tubers and many “seconds” under certain conditions.

The ‘Russet Burbank,’ like "Burbank’s Seedling," became to be used as a baking potato and in time supplanted "Burbank’s Seedling," although by 1930 only about 4 percent of the United Sates' harvest consisted of ‘Russet Burbank.’ It was particularly well suited to the newly developed arid and irrigated parts of the western United States and sandy soils where it could produce relatively large and uniform yields and sometimes enormous potatoes. The higher altitudes in many sections of the west created a climate of warm days and cool nights, much like the conditions present in the potato’s center of origination in the Andes, and ideal for tuber production.

These big potatoes came to the attention of Mr. Hazen J. Titus, superintendent of dining car services for the Northern Pacific Railroad, when he overheard two Yakima Valley potato growers complaining about the huge 5-pound size of some of the ‘Netted Gems’ and what could be done with them. Titus had what turned out to be a brilliant idea. Beginning in February 1909 “the Netted Gem Baker” served on an 8-inch platter was featured on dining car menus for the next several decades, greatly enhancing the reputation of the potato and the railroad. Titus is credited with famously associating the railroad through an extensive advertising campaign with the “Route of the Big Baked Potato.” He later became known as the founder of the Hazen J. Titus Fruit Cake Company, with the mission of creating a factory in a community to be known as "Fruit Cake," in California.

Elbert Hubbard, radical philosopher and founder of the Roycroft artisan community in East Aurora, New York ,who died in the sinking of the Lusitania, devoted a whole story to the railroad and potato in an essay called “A Little Journey to Yellowstone” in his "Selected Writings." This russeted potato grew in popularity, but its true purpose was not to be realized until 40 years later.

Around World War II the demand for feeding the troops overseas grew enormously. J.R. “Jack” Simplot was a large-scale potato and onion grower in Idaho. He had built a rudimentary but efficient food dehydrating plant in Caldwell, Idaho, and was one of the few in the country to dry onions for seasoning. In the beginning of the American involvement in Word War II, he was approached by Col. Logan from the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps asking if a dried product could be developed to help feed the troops. Potatoes were the answer, and a dry fleshed potato like ‘Russet Burbank’ fit the bill. A few months later a potato drying plant was built in Caldwell. During the height of the war, Simplot was shipping 33 million pounds of dried diced potato yearly, about a third of the total supply. While the over-consumption of the dried potatoes by serviceman probably did little to enhance their reputation, it wasn’t too long before a different process based on an English model created dehydrated mashed potatoes in the early 1950s. At first this was in a powdered form, but soon technology was developed to make potato flakes, creating a bulkier package and a better texture. While the product had a slow rise to popularity, another form of potato was about to change life for the ‘Burbank Russet’ and for the public.

With the advent of freezer systems on the railroads, supermarkets, and at home in the early 1950s, the possibility for creating value-added processed products was greatly enhanced. Soon, various types of fried potatoes, such as frozen crinkle cuts, hash browns and Tater Tots, became widely available to the public. The irregular knobby pieces of the potato could be utilized in many of these processed products. The big breakthrough occurred with the ability to produce a viable french fry that was slightly pre-cooked, or blanched, then frozen for the food service industry. Blanching killed an enzyme that would turn the potato brown. This opened the door for supplying restaurants with a product they could store, was convenient, and could be cooked on premises. The french fry really took off when McDonalds decided in 1957 to switch from using fresh potatoes to frozen ones. This created an ongoing relationship with the J. R. Simplot Company, who made a fortune. While McDonalds uses four cultivars of potatoes to make their fries, ‘Russet Burbank’ remains one of their favorites.

Today, about 13 billion pounds of ‘Russet Burbank’ potatoes are produced annually in the United States, making it the largest production potato cultivar in the country and representing about one third to 40 percent of the market. About half of them are grown in Idaho, and the rest come from Washington, North Dakota, Oregon and Wisconsin. The value of the ‘Russet Burbank’ is about $1.5 billion a year, although its total transaction value and affect upon the economy is much greater. This potato is probably the most valuable heirloom potato in the world, certainly in the United States, and one of the most significant single cultivar heirlooms anywhere. Twenty-five years ago, 96-98 percent of all russets produced in the United States were ‘Russet Burbank.’ Other cultivars of russets have been developed, which have more consistent shape, less knobs, and more number one potatoes, displacing the ‘Russet Burbank’ to some degree. Because the ‘Russet Burbank’ is not very generous with producing seed, it has made it difficult to develop new cultivars using it as a progenitor.

In 1995 Monsanto decided to get around that problem and developed a series of transgenic potatoes for the food service industry: ‘New Leaf,’ based on inserted genes for control of Colorado potato beetle and potato leafroll virus. At its height, 50,000 acres of these were grown in the United States and Canada. For a variety of reasons, including pressure from consumers and food service companies, Monsanto stopped producing them in 2001. The newest development in transgenic potatoes is the creation by J. R. Simplot Company known as the ‘Innate’ potato, which includes modification to ‘Russet Burbank’ in addition to ‘Ranger Russet’ and ‘Atlantic,’ a cultivar used for potato chips. Simplot’s rationale was to a create potato using only potato genes — that is only genes “innate” to potato species. The modification was designed to produce reduced levels of acrylamide, a carcinogen that forms in potatoes when they are heated at high temperatures. This potato received USDA approval in November 2014, was field tested in 2015, and it is likely to be on the market soon. What response food service industry will have this time around is speculative.

It is impossible to know what Luther Burbank would think about a genetically modified version of the long white potato he propagated in a garden in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, 140 years ago; a potato that was produced from thousands of natural crosses and years of diligent selection by two potato breeders, a chance seed ball, and a keen-eyed horticulturist. I suspect he wouldn’t like it.

Copyright Lawrence Davis-Hollander