Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Burbank's White Blackberry

I've been caught up recently reading a wonderful biography of Luther Burbank titled The Garden of Invention, a 2009 publication authored by Jane S. Smith.  For a biography of a non-exciting and non-current public figure, this is a surprisingly easy read that introduced me to a whole aspect of gardening history of which I had little prior information.

Luther seems to have been an odd duck, born as a New Englander, but transplanted to California on a post-Civil-War whim to make money.  His methods, coming on the heels of the dissemination of Darwin and Mendel's discoveries, seem to have been as much mystical as science, based more on the writings of Emerson and Thoreau than the new science of hereditary.  Descriptions of his poor note-taking and nebulous written records of crosses only contribute to his eccentric persona.  I didn't know he was awarded an early Carnegie grant, but it doesn't sound like the Carnegie Foundation put up with him long. 

In a table that appears before the table of contents in the book, Ms. Smith lists Luther Burbank's most famous introductions.  I was both shocked and disappointed that, although I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable amateur gardener, I could only recognise a few from a list of about 40 plants.  I recognized the Burbank potato (1873), Shasta daisy (1901), and elephant garlic (1919), which most other gardeners would know as well, but I wasn't even aware that the latter was a Burbank introduction. I always knew that the Shasta daisy, which I hold in high regard, was a Burbank creation, but I, an avid rosarian, had never heard of the 'Burbank Rose' and I still don't know what his 'Surprise Daylily' looks like.  Neither it nor Luther Burbank are mentioned in Sydney Eddison's A Passion for Daylilies or any other daylily encyclopedia I can find.  I have had some previous experience with Burbank's Sunberry, mentioned in the book although it didn't make the top 40 list, which I had purchased a few years ago from Seed Saver's Exchange and which I found to be extremely disappointing in taste quality and a bit of a nuisance in terms of reseeding itself. 

I am currently captivated though, by the thought of the white blackberry (named 'Iceberg'), that Burbank had introduced in 1894 after crossing the wild New Jersey blackberry marketed at the time as 'Crystal White' with the well-regarded 'Lawton' blackberry.  A pretty good description of the development of 'Iceberg' can be read on the web at the bulbnrose.org website.  The white blackberry leapt from the pages of the Smith book into my compulsive mindset and I HAD TO HAD IT. Even if it was disappointing in taste, I reasoned it would be worth growing as an heirloom conversation piece.

Alas, after three frustrating hours trying to find a current source to procure the white blackberry, I struck out.  It isn't offered for sale at any commercial nursery that I can find and my only remaining hope is an email I sent to another blogger who posted last June that he is growing it in California.  Of course, I could have missed finding a nursery offering on a Google search, given the difficulty of this particular search.  Just try searching for "white blackberry" on the Internet.  Today, all you get is 100,000 sites about some crappy second-rate phone called a "Blackberry."  Who the heck would name a phone after a fruit? And I'm going to write a letter to the Gold Ridge Experimental Farm.  That's the former experimental farm of Burbank's, now made into a tourist attraction.  The gift shop to the farm sells only typical tourist shirts, notecards and other crap.  No plants.  I don't know who runs the gift shop but it ought to have dawned on the curators that most of the visitors may have some gardening interest and might be interested to buy some of Burbank's famous plants.

Like a white blackberry for instance.

10 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review! I'd looked at this book before -- now I have to track it down. I get mournful when old plants pass out of cultivation. I understand that sometimes "better" varieties have taken their places, but it still seems sad. I hope you find the whiteberry!

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  2. I'm so glad I saw this post. Just a couple of months ago I was looking for a biography of Luther Burbank and couldn't find one. I wonder why this didn't turn up on my search? Anyway, I have ordered it from my local bookstore and it is arriving next week. I am excited.

    I read a bio of Luther Burbank the year I started gardening -- 1971. I had never gardened a day in my life, but practically the minute I got married, well, within a few months, I got the bug, and spent the summer reading everything I could find about gardening in the local library. That one must be out of print. There was also an interesting bio of W. Atlee Burpee by the same author, which is probably also out of print.

    To be honest, I found the 'mystical' part of Burbank's methods to be the most interesting part. Being a person who talks to plants (and listens to what they say back) I am fascinated by this. Does it talk about how, during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, his greenhouse had only a broken pane or two, while the rest of Santa Rosa was badly damaged? I think I remember reading that.

    Again, thanks for the post. And good luck in your quest for a white blackberry. There must be some out here somewhere.

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  5. Check with the National Clonal Germplasm Repository (USDA). They have 'Snowbank', another white blackberry bred from 'Iceberg'.

    http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/53581500/catalogs/rubblackberry.html

    There have been other "white" blackberries, though these were found rather than bred. Currently, the Nettleton "Creamy White" blackberry is available from http://whiteblackberryplant.com/

    I haven't seen this one, except for the blurry pictures on the web page. It may not be great, but might be useful as a novelty for those who gotta have it.

    Karl King

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  6. I found this while searching for blackberry plants, then in trying to research them found your page...

    http://louisville.craigslist.org/grd/2931785716.html

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  7. The White Blackberry of Mr. Burbank still exists at his home and gardens, (in Santa Rosa, CA), as well I think at the experimental gardens in Sebastopol, CA.
    The White BB is sold only at the Home and Gardens location on the corner of Santa Rosa Ave. & Sonoma Ave. Starting in May around Mothers Day as they have a big plant sale then. Subsequently every Wednesday there after through the summer they have a plant sale until fall. White BB are typically sold in gallon containers. They DO NOT do mail order! Sales are ONLY in person on location.

    here is the link for ealier this years plant sale
    http://www.lutherburbank.org/special-events/may-day-plant-sale

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  8. The White Blackberry of Mr. Burbank still exists at his home and gardens, (in Santa Rosa, CA), as well I think at the experimental gardens in Sebastopol, CA.
    The White BB is sold only at the Home and Gardens location on the corner of Santa Rosa Ave. & Sonoma Ave. Starting in May around Mothers Day as they have a big plant sale then. Subsequently every Wednesday there after through the summer they have a plant sale until fall. White BB are typically sold in gallon containers. They DO NOT do mail order! Sales are ONLY in person on location.

    here is the link for ealier this years plant sale
    http://www.lutherburbank.org/special-events/may-day-plant-sale

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  9. If anyone finds out where to buy this I would sincerely appreciate an email. My grandparents had one in the back yard when I was a child, but it must have not made it at some point. I have always wanted to find one for my own garden. Granted I don't know of it was the one mentioned above or just a weird fluke that found its way here. I have been searching the Internet for hours on many separate occasions only to find that it's available to buy in California but not for mail order and being that I am all the way across the country with no prospect of going to Santa Rosa anytime soon anything on this would be helpful. My email is tlkellam@gmail.com

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  10. UPDATE:
    I have obtained some 'Iceberg" Burbank cuttings / plants from two sources.
    I can attest to the fact that ALL plant stock at the Santa Rosa Home and Gardens as well as the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, OR are all infected with the RBDV Virus. as such Mine are as well. there are no efforts to remove this common virus from a plant by the USDA so as to product clean stock for micropropagation.

    Nettleton Creamy White Blackberry in Albinon? IL those plants are available but are quite pricey. they are very possibly the original John Orange white berries, (Chances are that this is Orange's 'Orange's Crystal' aka 'Crystal White', 'Colonel Wilder') of circa 1850-60.

    contact me betauserz@gmail.com

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