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Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

10 Crazy Creations of “Plant Wizard” Luther Burbank

Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Even if you've never heard of Luther Burbank, you've probably tasted his work the last time you ate a French fry. In the early 20th century, Burbank—who was born on March 7, 1849—created over 800 varieties of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. The "Plant Wizard," as he was called, had a unique approach to horticulture that was part Darwinism, part Thomas Edison. And while his failures often sound like something out of a sci-fi novel, we’re still eating many of his creations today.

1. RUSSET POTATO

Luther Burbank’s career started with a tiny seedpod growing on a potato plant in his garden. Most people would disregard the inedible seedpod, but Burbank had been reading Charles Darwin. Intrigued by Darwin's idea that each plant contains countless possible variations, he planted the 23 seeds. Only two of the resulting plants produced potatoes, but one of them was a doozy. It yielded tons of big potatoes with thin brown skin and white flesh. Today, a slight variation of this potato (due to a spontaneous mutation in a farmer’s field) is used in everything from tater tots to french fries.

2. SHASTA DAISY

Burbank was fond of daisies, so he set out to invent his ideal version of one. He wanted large, white blossoms that would bloom for a long period of time. First, he cross-pollinated the oxeye field daisy with the English field daisy. Then he took the best of those plants and crossed them with the Portuguese field daisy—a process that took six years.

Still unsatisfied—apparently the flowers weren’t white enough—he pollinated these triple hybrids with the Japanese field daisy, which was known for its white blossoms. The result was a flower close to the one in his imagination. He introduced the Shasta Daisy, which took 17 years to make, in 1901.

3. PLUMCOT

The plumcot is half plum, half apricot. Burbank crossed the Japanese plum with an apricot and kept refining until he had a fruit with plum-like flesh and the aroma of apricot. Prior to the plumcot, people thought it was impossible to cross two trees with such different fruit; the plumcot opened the door.

(The plumcot is different from the pluot, which is 60 percent plum and 40 percent apricot, as well as the aprium, which is 70 percent apricot and 30 percent plum. Both fruits came after the plumcot.)

4. WHITE BLACKBERRY

Much of Burbank’s success came from making plants perform functions that seem the opposite of their nature. This is the case with the white blackberry. Its very name is a contradiction. Burbank created it by crossing a brownish blackberry called “Crystal White” with the Lawton blackberry.

Unfortunately, the plant is one of Burbank’s commercial failures. Once the novelty wore off, the public just wasn’t interested in eating white blackberries.

5. SCENTED CALLA LILY

One night, Burbank was walking among his calla lilies when he caught the scent of violets. That struck him as strange, because calla lilies aren’t supposed to have a smell. Burbank dropped to his knees and began crawling around in the dark, smelling flowers until he detected the source of the scent. From there, he came up with a sweet-smelling calla lily called “Fragrance.”

6. SPINELESS CACTUS

This is, simply put, a cactus without spines. It took Burbank two decades to remove the cactus’s spines, a process he called soul testing. “For five years or more the cactus blooming season was a period of torment to me both day and night,” he said. 

Burbank hoped the spineless cactus would transform deserts into places where cattle could graze. At first, it seemed like a success, with people like author Jack London testing the spineless cactus at his nearby ranch. But it turned out that the spineless cactus was delicate. It didn’t like cold and needed regular watering—in short, it couldn’t survive in the desert. Burbank’s most arduous project was also his biggest commercial failure.

7. POMATO

You’d be forgiven for assuming the pomato is a cross between the potato and tomato, but in fact, it was a fruit that grew on a potato vine. It looked like a white tomato and Burbank described eating it as “a delightful commingling of acids and sugars.” Because of its resemblance to the tomato, he called it the pomato.

Unfortunately, the pomato was a fluke. It never reproduced the same way again, and Burbank didn’t take enough interest in the plant to continue with it.

8. PETUNIA/TOBACCO HYBRID

One of Burbank’s more eccentric failures was when he tried to cross a tobacco plant with a petunia. The resulting plants sound like mutants out of Little Shop Of Horrors: Some plants turned red or pink, while some stayed green and popped out petunia flowers. Some of the plants tumbled over and trailed vines while others grew four feet tall and sprouted tobacco leaves. Burbank weeded out the tobacco-like plants in favor of petunia characteristics, only to find they had a weak root system. He joked that the petunias were stunted from their tobacco habit.

9. PARADOX WALNUT

In his career, Burbank developed walnuts with thinner shells, bigger kernels, and larger yields. His biggest achievement wasn’t in the nut, however, but in walnut wood. The Paradox Walnut is a cross between the California black walnut tree and the English walnut. When he planted the seeds from this hybrid, it grew so quickly that it soon dwarfed the other walnut trees. In 15 years, the Paradox Walnut was 60 feet tall with trunks measuring two feet wide. Other walnut trees would take 50 to 60 years to get that big.

10. “MIRACULOUS” STONELESS PLUM

Wouldn’t it be nice to eat a plum without having to bother with the stone? Burbank thought so, so he set about making a plum without a pit. He started with a plum called Sans Noyau, which naturally had a stone about half the size of other plums. From there, he developed a plum with only a tiny flake of seed in its center.

But the plum wasn’t well received, and for years, Burbank’s stoneless plum was thought extinct. Then one of the original Burbank trees turned up in Oregon. Learn about horticulturalist Lon Rombough’s efforts to preserve Burbank’s stoneless plum here:

Additional Sources: Luther Burbank Online; LutherBurbank.org; video from Archive.org; NPR; Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application.

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Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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