Luther Burbank was clearly peeved when the reporter asked for comment on whether his greatest achievement was actually a failure.
At issue was a government pamphlet released a month earlier, at the close of 1907. The topic was the prickly pear cactus, also known as genus Opuntia, also known as Burbank’s most profitable plant creation ever. The government experts were envious, Burbank told the reporter, because he had beaten them in developing a fast-growing spineless variety that had ten times the nutritional value of the regular plant.
(RIGHT: Luther Burbank with his spineless cactus. Photo from the Sept. 1908 issue of Overland Monthly)
The spineless cactus was Burbank’s moon shot – an odyssey with the goal of creating a hybrid that would be as important to mankind as his namesake potato. Worthless deserts would become valuable pastures and croplands; the fields once used to grow animal fodder like alfalfa could now feed the world’s hungry. It was his longest running project (a photograph in the Library of Congress collection shows Burbank tending a cactus seed bed c. 1890) and one that he called “soul-testing.” In his authorized Methods and Discoveries book series, he revealed uncharacteristic emotion:
…[T]he work through which this result was achieved constituted in some respects the most arduous and soul-testing experience that I have ever undergone….For five years or more the cactus blooming season was a period of torment to me both day and night. Time and again I have declared from the bottom of my heart that I wished I had never touched the cactus to attempt to remove its spines. Looking back on the experience now, I feel that I would not have courage to renew the experiments were it necessary to go through the same ordeal again.”
Burbank declared success in 1907, a year after making a deal for Australian rights to five varieties – a sale he credited for allowing him to build his fine new house – and he published a cactus catalog (a later version can be found here). The improved spineless cactus would mean “a new agricultural era for whole continents,” he boasted, and “in importance may be classed with the discovery of a new continent.” Most of the public, however, probably already knew of Burbank’s latest marvel from magazines and newspaper Sunday sections, which had been churning out gee-whiz photo features for a couple of years. Then came a widely-reprinted speech he delivered at an agricultural convention. Where the catalog offered grandiose visions of desert paradise, his speech read like a salesman’s list of can’t-refuse bullet points: Yield is 200 tons of food per acre; grows in the very worst conditions; cattle and other animals prefer it to everything else. How many would you like to order, at $2.00 each?
Cactus mania continued ballooning through the end of 1907 as it became publicized that Burbank would receive a staggering $27,000 – by far, the biggest single payday of his life – from a Southern California company for rights to some varieties. Eager to get in on a Sure Thing, investors and farmers besieged government ag field offices seeking more information about these spineless wonders, which led the Dept. of Agriculture to write a pamphlet. And that’s what brought the Press Democrat reporter to ask Luther Burbank whether his cactus was actually a “failure.”
At first read, it’s hard to understand why Burbank knocked the pamphlet and its authors. It doesn’t mention him at all; the 67-page report simply documents the wide variety of prickly pear cacti and how they are consumed in Latin America. Even the title, “The Tuna as Food for Man,” is perfectly clear about the author’s objective, as “tuna” is the Spanish name for this cactus. Some of the fruit described was inedible or tasteless, but a few varieties, such as the Amarilla, was delicious; other varieties were dangerous or plain weird, such as the Tapona (“plug”), which was said to cause such severe constipation that death could ensue.
The Ag. Dept. bulletin also noted that some prickly pear, which had been cultivated by native peoples for generations (probably millennia) were naturally spineless, a fact that Burbank wanted rarely known. Although he would simply answer “no” when asked directly if he had bred the smooth variety from the prickly sort, he wanted the public to believe exactly that. George Shull, the botanist from the Carnegie Institution who studied Burbank’s methods for years, later wrote of his dismay that Burbank set up a display intended to be “misleading to the uncritical:”
Just inside his gate at his Santa Rosa experimental Garden, he had planted a bed, some 15 feet square, with a sprawling, thorny cacti from the desert. In the midst of this forbidden looking culture, he planted a single specimen of Opuntia Ficus-Indica of the spineless variety, in most striking contrast with the thorny cacti around it. Mr. Burbank’s visitors, who often came in droves, would look over the fence at this striking demonstration and comments to one another [on] the amazing wizardry which “created” the smooth fat-slabbed cactus from the sprawling thorny ones.*
It may seem odd that the government would produce a 1907 pamphlet all about the prickly pear yet not mention the 800 lb. Burbank in the room, but this undoubtedly was the wisest decision. One reason is that Burbank was a polarizing celebrity, beloved by the public and viewed as something of a charlatan by the many in the scientific community, as discussed in the first “Burbank’s Follies” essay. Any explicit praise or criticism would be sure to raise someone’s hackles. Another reason is that Burbank simply hadn’t shared samples of his hybrids with government researchers – and according to an article in the Jan. 10, 1909 Los Angeles Herald, Washington was still waiting over a year later to see a Burbank cactus. A few sentences in the pamphlet’s introduction, however, took a very cautious aim at deflating a few of his claims:
Enthusiastic magazine writers would revolutionize conditions in arid regions by the establishment of plantations of prickly pear without spines, those converting the most arid deserts into populous, prosperous communities. Experience teaches, however, that the spineless varieties of cultivation are not hardy under natural desert conditions, that all of the valuable spineless species which produce either fruit or forage in economic quantities require considerable precipitation at some time of the year, and that economic species are not known which thrive under a minimum temperature of less that 10°F [Ed. note: In a later pamphlet, the author changed the cold-weather threshold to 20°F].
In other words, never would the desert bloom in vast cactus farms. The spineless varieties were more delicate than the spiny forms, sensitive to cold and not as drought tolerant. They grew best only in places with year-around rainfall or with wet, mild winters and dry summers. Places like Santa Rosa, California, for example.
Other claims by Burbank and his agents crumbled under scrutiny. Often mentioned was that a crop would yield 200 tons of forage; less said was that it would take at least three years for the cactus to grow to that size. Burbank also stated that his cactus required only about a third the amount of water needed to grow alfalfa – although again avoiding mention that a crop took three years, thus bringing water use to a draw. Since his cacti were slow growing (though apparently faster than many wild forms) it was impractical for pasture grazing, yet harvested cactus paddles were bulky, hard to transport, so they had to be grown near where they would be used. Any way you looked at it, the Burbank cactus was a failure as a world-changing plant; it was just another Burbank garden novelty.
The author of the Agriculture Department bulletin was horticulturist Dr. David Griffiths, who went on to write several more bulletins on the prickly pear in following years, all available through Google Books. He never mentioned Burbank or his hybrids, and never found farmers or ranchers growing the cactus in places where it was not naturally found, such as southern Texas. And the more he investigated the prickly pear, he learned that all varieties improved with irrigation and cultivation, yet it only really thrived in very specific conditions: Not too cold or hot, not at high altitude or at sea level, not too damp or dry. See again: Santa Rosa.
The Burbank cactus bubble floated along until 1915,
when Burbank’s sales company received an order from Mexico that was too large to fill, so they shipped regular prickly pear with the thorns shaved off, a deceit that was discovered as soon as thorny new growth appeared. The scandal nearly destroyed Burbank’s reputation, particularly because the fraud was conducted by the “Luther Burbank Company” and every plant came with a tag promising the “guarantee of receiving original Burbank productions.” But some felt that the fraud actually began years before, as Burbank began making irresponsible claims about a plant that had little more potential than its wild cousin. (UPDATE: The Burbank biographies that state a bait-and-switch fraud was discovered are probably wrong. See this discussion.)
*pg. 141, Peter Dreyer, A Gardener Touched With Genius (Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA) 1985
THE GOVERNMENT EXPERTS BELITTLE BURBANK’S WORK
Declare the Spineless Cactus a Failure
Noted Santa Rosan, However, is Willing to Let His Work Speak For Itself and Abide by the Result–Working on Seedless Variety
San Francisco, Jan. 23– Luther Burbank is reported to be considerably wrought up over the publication of a government bulletin which says the Santa Rosan over-worked the facts when he declared that he had produced a spineless cacti. The bulletin is called “Tuna as a food for Man, and is issued by David Griffith of the Bureau of Plant Industry, last month.
The Bulletin declares that the general belief and hope that the species that the spineless cacti would displace its wild sister on the deserts of California and Arizona to furnish food and a substitute for water to lost prospectors is doomed to disappointment and failure. Experiments go to show, declares the circular, that the cultivated variety is unable to withstand of the hardships of the desert and will be no more acceptable than the wild cacti.
Mr. Burbank, when seen last night regarding the bulletin by a Press Democrat representative, said he had seen the statement and declared that the government experts were piqued because they had been beat out by him by five years in securing the spineless variety. He said he was more than willing to let his success speaks for itself, and abide by the results. He had been able to increase the cacti productiveness four times and its food value ten times as with his spineless variety a yield of 200 tons per acre could be secured as against 20 tons from the wild, while the sugar and fat in the spineless was greatly increased. “The next move will be to produce a seedless as well as a spineless variety,” said he in closing.– Press Democrat, January 24, 1908