Meet the Most Famous American You’ve Never Heard Of: His Legacy is Excellent French Fries and Monsanto

In his day, Luther Burbank was a horticultural rock star: everyone from opera singers to movie stars and European royalty to an Indian guru traveled to Santa Rosa, California, to meet him. Dubbed the "plant wizard," Burbank invented the plumcot and the stoneless plum, the white blackberry, and the potato variety used in every French fry you've ever eatenas well as some 800 more new-and-improved plants, from walnuts to rhubarb. His fame as a plant inventor put him in the same league as Thomas Edison—but, while Edison patented his light bulb and phonograph, Burbank had no legal way to protect his crop creations. Listen now for the story of Luther Burbank, the most famous American you've never heard of, and how his struggles shaped what's on our supermarket shelves today, but also led to a world in which big companies like Monsanto can patent life. It's a wild ride that involves the death spiral of the Red Delicious and the rise of the Cosmic Crisp apple, as well as coded notebooks, detective agencies, rogue farmers, and a resistance movement led by former New York City mayor (and subsequent airport namesake) Fiorello La Guardia.

The plant wizard in his famous garden in Santa Rose, California. (Image Credit: Western Sonoma Historical Society)

Episode Notes

Jane S. Smith

Jane Smith is a science and natural history write and the author of The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants

David Karp

David Karp is a researcher with the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, and co-editor of the Register of New Fruit and Nut Cultivars, which tracks new patented fruits and nuts. His article, "What's in a name? When it comes to fruit, economic and genetic forces have a major say," published in the Los Angeles Times, explores the rise of the trademarked fruit and revealed the alpha-numeric real names behind some of our favorite supermarket varieties.

Above, the contract that Stark Brothers' Nursey required buyers to sign before they would ship their famous golden delicious apple trees to them; below, the tags that came attached to those trees, reminding nurseries of the contract and soliciting reports about apple thefts.

Daniel Kevles

Dan Kevles is a historian of science, including plant breeding, and an emeritus professor at Yale University. He is currently at work on a book on the history of innovation and intellectual property protection for living things, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Lela Nargi

Author, editor, and journalist Lela Nargi covers the science and policy of food. Her article, "Intellectual property and trademark protections for fruit-growing plants are on the rise—and so are the lawsuits," for The Counter, traces the impact of the Bayh-Dole Act on fruit IP.

Left, Luther Burbank's famous plant catalog; right, a Stark Brothers' catalog advertising one of Burbank's plums for sale.


Click here for a transcript of the show. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.