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Luther Burbank, Plums, and CA Horticulture

Luther Burbank, Plums, and CA Horticulture

Various varieties of plums.

Cynthia Houng | Chef's Blade

By the turn of the 20th century, most of these “heirloom” varietals would be replaced by hybrids, like Burbank’s Santa Rosa plum, which were bred to be easy to pack, easy to store, and well-suited for the California climate.

Burbank’s techniques included both sexual and asexual methods – he employed cross-pollination widely, often crossing different species and he was also a master at grafting, a method of asexual reproduction that allows the propagator to clone the parent and create genetically identical offspring.

The end of the nineteenth century also saw the introduction–to the United States and Europe–of new Asian varieties of familiar fruits, such as plums, cherries, apricots, and apples. Burbank drew on this new genetic diversity to create new cultivars suitable for the California climate. Burbank actively sought out Asian varietals, importing trees from Japan and planting them in Santa Rosa. He introduced improved varieties of peaches, plums, cherries, and prunes, and invented the “plumcot” (a hybrid between apricots and plums, sometimes called a “pluot”).

The Santa Rosa Plum, a low-chill variety of Japanese plum, remains one of Burbank’s most enduring contributions to California agriculture. Burbank’s other introductions include the Elephant Heart plum, a crisp, firm plum with unusual red flesh, the Freestone peach, an “ever-bearing” strawberry, and the “Russet Burbank” potato. Developed in 1872, the “Russet Burbank” is the precursor to the ubiquitous Idaho Russet.

Since the 1980s, the United States, and especially California, has been a net exporter of fresh plums. According to a UC Davis report, in 2002 California produced more than 90% of the country’s commercial crop, and lion’s share of those plums derive from “hybrids of Asian stocks introduced by Luther Burbank in the 1870s.” In 2002, Burbank’s plums were worth an estimated $56.4 million dollars.

All this wealth, from a single man’s relationship with a humble tree.

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