In his own time, Luther Burbank was a living legend, as well known in his own field as Henry Ford was for automobiles. Starting out with hardly any land and even less money bar what he’d earned breeding a new kind of potato, Burbank headed west for greener, California pastures, where he could make his name. There he could work his magic, combining varieties of plants to create perfect specimens, which have now become so ubiquitous that we would no longer recognize the originals he tampered with. But due to the nature of the botanical market, Burbank could never be assured of his position, and his eccentricity ensured that he would struggle to be accepted amongst scientists. Regardless, he changed the nature of plant breeding and introduced new ideas about plants that continue to resonate in the American psyche today.
I’d only ever heard of vague echoes about Luther Burbank before winning this book on Twitter from the publisher, at least a year ago now. I had no idea that he was regarded as such a great man or that his name could sell plants just by being attached to them. It’s a bit of a joke amongst those who know me that I have a “black thumb” – everything I’ve ever tried to grow has, unfortunately, died pretty quickly no matter what I do. So, I was purely interested in this book from a historical perspective; whatever information about gardening I took from it would surely never be put to good use. It was fortunately very satisfying from that historical perspective.
Smith takes us through a journey of Burbank’s life, from his relatively lowly origins to his path to fame and stardom. Quite a few of his own problems reflected the problems of the day; for example, none of his plants could ever be patented. As a result, men who “invented” things and were in the same class as him became wildly wealthy without needing to do much else, while Burbank had to continually innovate throughout his life in order to achieve results and deliver the next best thing. Tossed into the mix were bits about early twentieth century marketing, which was also quite interesting to me now that I work in marketing, and plenty about Burbank’s personal life and his various attempts to expand into other markets depending on how he felt at the time.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book was Burbank himself, which shouldn’t really have been a surprise. Such an eccentric man must have been a delight to write about. No one knows how to replicate some of his creations because he hardly ever documented what he did and he stymied every attempt to follow him and write about his methods. Instead he’d say it all depended on emotions and visitors to the farm would catch him talking to his plants as he went about the day’s work.
I didn’t really know what to expect from The Garden of Invention but I got an interesting little book about gardens, history, and a US that was rapidly legalizing. If any of those subjects interest you, give this one a try.
I am an Amazon Associate. I won this book in a giveaway.