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

| Spring 2015

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.

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