This section is from the book "The Potato: A Compilation of Information from Every Available Source", by Eugene H. Grubb, W. S. Guilford. Also available from Amazon: The Potato: A Compilation Of Information From Every Available Source.
For several years the authors of this book have looked upon their occasional visits to Luther Burbank at Santa Rosa, Cal. as bright spots in their year's work. Each visit brings a greater love for the genial, kindly, wonderful man and a greater admiration for his marvelous work in plant breeding - the like of which the world has never before known. He is both a genius and a philanthropist, and the value of his life work to the world will probably never be given a correct rating.
The Burbank potato is in a class by itself on the Pacific coast. In discussing the potato situation in California, Mr. Burbank said:
I suppose the Russians, who had a trading post on the coast of what is now Sonoma County, may have grown potatoes, but the first potatoes in the state of which we have any record were those brought by sailors from Chile, South America. That it was possible for them to be used on the slow-sailing vessels of seventy-five years ago shows that they were good keepers.
This Chilean potato was grown on the shores of Bodega Bay in Sonoma County and came to be known as the ' Bodega Red.' It was a red potato, with heavy eyebrows and deep eyes, and when piled in the field and covered with vines would keep for two years. It was very subject to blight, however, and a field of growing potatoes might be wiped out by the disease in a few days. At that time it was thought that potatoes could not be grown in the interior valley of California."
It was not until the introduction of the Burbank that large acreages of potatoes were grown in California.
On one of our visits to Mr. Burbank he told us the story of the Burbank potato, and although busy with the thousands and thousands of plants involved in the bringing out of new and improved varieties, and with the writing of the history of his life's work, he has written the following for this book:
In the summer of 1871, after I had had several years of amateur experience in raising seedling potatoes, I was on the lookout for some potato which did not reproduce itself almost exactly from the seed in form, size, color, and all other particulars, as did most of the potatoes then known. While searching for such a variety, I happened, that autumn, to find on my place a single seed-ball on an Early Rose potato vine, and was immediately impressed with what later proved to be the fact, that this must be something valuable, as the Early Rose very seldom bears seed-balls. It was watched with the utmost care until nearly ripe, my attention being upon it daily. When it was about mature and ready to pick, the patch was visited that morning with that intention, but to my great consternation the coveted fruit had disappeared, and the pain and disappointment were intense when, after a careful search, I was unable to find any trace of it. However, believing that it might be somewhere in the vicinity, day after day the place was visited, and the most diligent search made, moving the vines about and leaving nothing undone that might disclose it. At last it was found a number of feet away from the original vine, no doubt removed either by a bird or some animal passing rapidly through the field.
From this single seed-ball twenty-six distinct new varieties were obtained. The seed was planted out of doors, as one would plant beets or cabbages, and not grown in boxes under glass and transplanted as seedlings of potato and tomato plants usually are. The ground had been prepared with as much care as could be bestowed upon it, and each seed was placed about a foot from its next neighbor in the rows. To-day I would not think of planting valuable potato-seeds in this way because the risks would be too great; but it turned out, perhaps from the unusual care given them, that they all grew well, and from that lot of seedlings varieties were obtained entirely distinct from any which had before been seen. There were two sorts with long, white, beautiful tubers, the most shapely, most uniform in size, of any that had yet been developed. One of these was afterward named and introduced as the 'Bur-bank' by that pioneer seedsman, Mr. J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Mass. The other white one was almost as good, but by careful test proved to be somewhat less prolific. This, and all the others except the 'Burbank, 'are now lost to cultivation, and let us hope without loss to the cultivator.
Besides the two seedlings above mentioned, one variety was bright red, not very productive, and most of the tubers decayed shortly after they were dug. Another was a round, white potato; still another was pink; a second pink variety was characterized by its white eyes; another pinkish variety had eyes so prominent that the long, slender tubers seemed to be all eyebrows, the eyes reaching quite to the centre of the potato. Probably seedlings raised from some of these might have produced varieties of great importance, but soon after, in moving to California, the seed was lost. I have raised more than ten thousand seedlings from the 'Burbank' potato since coming to California, but have never obtained one that was equal in all respects to the original.
Over eight million bushels of the Burbank potato were produced on the Pacific coast alone during 1906, and probably nearly as many each year for fifteen or twenty years past. It is the standard tuber on this coast to-day from Alaska to Mexico, and almost invariably brings the highest price of all potatoes. It thrives as well here to-day as it did in Massachusetts thirty-five years ago. This is one of the proofs that varieties do not run out if grown under suitable environments."