Plant and Patent History

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Plant and Patent History

As the weather turns away from the biting cold of winter and into the warmth of late spring and early summer, people everywhere look forward to growing gardens and harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables. With many likely to still be practicing social distancing and spending more time at home, learning about the history of plant varieties can make activities like backyard gardening more meaningful.

Many well-known plant species, including a variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables, were developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Luther Burbank. Growing up in rural Massachusetts, Burbank began a 55-year plant breeding career at the age of 21 when he purchased some land and developed the Russet Burbank, or Idaho, potato. After selling the rights to the potato for $150 (about $3,000 today), he moved to Santa Rosa, California, where he established a nursery garden, a greenhouse and experimental gardens. Due to its favorable climate, Santa Rosa was an ideal location to begin the large-scale development of new plant varieties.

Burbank’s hybridization practice involved grafting seedlings onto fully developed plants across different strains. Through printed catalogues like the 1894 “New Creations in Fruits and Flowers,” he would share his plant diversification methods with a few hundred national and international nurseries. Burbank developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, including 113 plums and prunes, 10 berries, 50 lilies, and the Freestone peach. Other developments included the Shasta daisy, the fire poppy and the “Flaming Gold” nectarine.

Due to Burbank’s prolific output of new plant varieties over the course of his lifetime, he is believed to be the inspiration behind the U.S. Plant Patent Act of 1930. The act amended U.S. patent law to permit the protection of new and distinct varieties of asexually reproduced plants, other than tuber-propagated plants like the Russet Burbank potato. This legislation grew out of the awareness that plant breeders had no financial incentive to enter plant breeding because they could not exercise control over their discoveries.

Although Burbank never obtained a patent before his death in 1926, he received several patents posthumously.


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