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10 Crazy Creations of “Plant Wizard” Luther Burbank

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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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History
A Brief History of Time
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You may have heard that time is a social construct, but that doesn’t stop it from having consequences in the real world. If you show up to a party 10 minutes before it’s scheduled to start, you’ll likely be the first one there, and if you arrive to an interview 10 minutes late, you likely won’t get the job. But how did humanity agree on when and how to observe certain times of day?

In their new video, the It’s Okay to Be Smart team explains how humans “invented” the modern concept of time. The increments we use to measure time, like seconds, minutes, and hours, come from the ancient civilizations of the Egyptians and the Babylonians. Early clocks, like sundials and water clocks, were pretty crude, so people couldn’t pinpoint a time like noon down to the second even if they wanted to. But as clocks became more accurate, the problem wasn’t being unable to tell time accurately, but deciding which clocks qualified as “accurate” in the first place.

In 1884, President Chester A. Arthur organized the International Meridian Conference with the intention of deciding on a uniform definition of time to be followed around the world. The attendees ended up choosing the meridian running through Greenwich, England as the official Prime Meridian, and all clocks would be measured against the clock in the town’s observatory. Greenwich Mean Time is still used as the standard world time today.

Check out the full story below.

[h/t It’s Okay to Be Smart]

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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