The Legacy of W. Atlee Burpee
In the year 1876, as the great Philadelphia Centennial Exposition opened, the United States was still recovering from the cataclysmic upheaval of the Civil War, the agonies of Reconstruction, and a severe economic depression. Yet the mood of Americans, inspired largely by the industrial revolution and westward expansion, was one of almost unrestrained optimism-- faith in scientific, social, and cultural progress resulting from self-reliant, individual achievement.
When the Exposition opened on May 10, sensations such as electric arc lights and a great many of the mechanical and industrial exhibits were genuinely revolutionary, but the displays of agricultural advances must have been even more fascinating to one young Philadelphian in attendance, a self-reliant 18-year-old named W. Atlee Burpee. Young Burpee was about to demolish his father's plans for his future by establishing his own poultry and livestock mail order company.
The Burpees were a well-established Philadelphia family descended from French Canadian Huguenots whose original family name, Beaupe, had in the course of several generations assumed an Americanized spelling and pronunciation. W. Atlee Burpee, born in 1858, was expected to become a physician like his father and grandfather, but even in his early youth he seemed determined to pursue a different career. His boyhood hobby was poultry breeding-- an interest that soon expanded to include the breeding of livestock, dogs, and plants. The infant science of genetics fascinated him.
Selective breeding for the improvement of animals and plants was hardly new, but it remained somewhat haphazard, relying on experience, trial and error, and casual observation rather than on controlled experiments leading to scientifically proven principles. By the 1860s and 70s, publications containing the crucial genetic experiments of Gregor Johann Mendel, the father of modern genetics, were available at major libraries in Philadelphia and elsewhere, as were Charles Darwin's observations of selective breeding. However, few people even in the scientific community put much stock in Mendel's principles of heredity, which were not confirmed until 1900, 16 years after his death.
In all probability, young Burpee (who had a lifelong thirst for research) was familiar with Mendel's famous 1866 report entitled "Experiments with Plant Hybrids." It's also probable that he read reports by the very active British breeders of livestock, poultry, grains, and vegetables.
However, there is evidence that he concocted his own experimental breeding programs and did so with great success. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he was corresponding with English breeders, providing as well as receiving information, and gained quick recognition when his papers on his experiments were published in England. The English breeders must have been impressed. On one occasion, in fact, several of these eminent breeders came to the Burpee home, expecting to exchange information with a gentleman of some maturity-- and therefore mistaking Dr. Burpee for his son. They were astonished to learn that the breeding expert they sought was 16 years old!
Soon afterward, yielding to his father's wishes, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, but he disliked it and simply could not visualize himself as a surgeon. When he dropped out, his father was predictably angry, but his mother was more tolerant of her son's unconventional interest and ambition. She loaned him $1,000 so that he could set himself up in the business of breeding poultry.
He kept in touch with the foreign visitors to his home (and to the Centennial Exposition), exchanging mail-order catalogues with them, and for about two years the W. Atlee Burpee Company was moderately successful. However, he soon needed to diversify in order to solve two growing problems: the need for repeat business every year and the need for a product that survived shipping well. He therefore began to breed dogs (particularly an excellent strain of border collies), as well as hogs, sheep, goats, and even calves.
Two stories-probably both true-have come down to us about the incidents that led Burpee to add seeds and plants to his catalogue.
The first is that he began to receive letters from farmers who had emigrated to America from various parts of Europe. They praised the quality of his livestock but complained about their vegetable crops. The seed they were buying from local sources was consistently of low purity and germination. In addition, they missed the types and characteristics of vegetables they had known in the old country, and asked if Burpee could supply the desired seeds or refer them to someone who could. Foreseeing the profitability of such an enterprise, Burpee decided he would, indeed, supply the homesick immigrant farmers their seeds, in addition to livestock.
The second story concerns a hog called the Chester County White, an excellent strain of swine that had been developed for Burpee in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He began to receive complaints that his hogs were extremely fussy about their diet-- they didn't fare as well as expected on just any kind of feed. The Chester County breeder explained that these hogs fared best if raised on a kind of field corn known as Mammoth. Burpee immediately realized that shipping feed and seed, which was easier and less costly than shipping animals, would solve the problem of the hog farmers as well as that of farmers yearning for "old-country" vegetables.
By the 1880s, the W. Atlee Burpee Company was supplying the Northeast as well as the booming plains states with seed as well as livestock-- making it the world's fastest growing mail-order seed company. Then as now, he guaranteed satisfaction for one year from date of purchase or a replacement of the seeds. Guaranteed high quality was what brought success. Burpee was certain at first that his connections with European growers would be the key to that quality, but he was only partially right.
Even before 1880, he had developed the habit of touring Europe every year, beginning in the south in early spring and making his way north, obtaining seed stock as he traveled. He found that most of the best vegetable breeders of the time were German, Dutch, and Scandinavian. By late summer he was in England, where he found the best flower breeders. He kept a field book of data and observations, and during the voyage home he studied all his notes. The field book, with corrections and deletions, became that year's Burpee catalogue. Deletions were often necessary because the stocks he brought home were carefully cleaned and tested (just as they are today) and some were discarded. Sometimes Burpee purchased European plates to illustrate his catalogue, but primarily he relied on immigrant watercolorists from Germantown (a suburb of Philadelphia), who were known for their great skill. Undoubtedly, the beauty of those catalogs contributed significantly to his company's growing success.
Probably an even more important factor in this success was his near-obsession with improvement and innovation. In 1877, a year after he went into business, Burpee introduced a new cabbage variety called Surehead , in 1881 an improved carrot called Long Orange , in 1884 a better celery and pepper, in 1887 an excellent new radish, and in 1894 both Iceberg lettuce and the Stringless Green Pod Bean. (The list since then has grown almost continuously.)
Within a few years, however, a problem arose in connection with the high quality that Burpee demanded and guaranteed. Look at a map of the world, and you ll notice that most of the United States is considerably farther south than most of Europe. The greatest portion of our country lies between the latitude of northern Algeria and southern France, far below the latitudes of Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, England, and even most of France. The difference in latitude implies major differences in relative humidity, seasonal temperatures, light intensity, growth rhythm and durations, and plant enemies-- fungi, bacteria, and viruses. This means that a flower or vegetable which produces superbly in Amsterdam may not do well at all on a Midwestern farm! And what this meant in the 1880s was trouble for W. Atlee Burpee-- too high an incidence of failures with seeds imported from Europe. The problem continues to this day with some heirloom seed varieties being brought over from northern European countries and offered to unknowing buyers who blame themselves for poor germination and less than advertised results.
Many of the European seed stocks Burpee acquired simply had to be adapted to American growing conditions, either by means of hybridization (Burpee created the first hybrid vegetables) or selective breeding for desirable characteristics. The European varieties were weak and susceptible to diseases, so they never produced the fruit and flowers here as they did in Germany, for example.
In 1888, Burpee bought a farm near Doylestown, Pennsylvania, called Fordhook, and began transforming it into what would soon become a world-famous plant development facility. Successful experiments at Fordhook Farm led to the best European vegetables and flowers being improved and adapted to American growing conditions.
Largely as a result, Burpee became a household name, and the largest seed company in the world by the 1890s. The unprecedented reliability of the seeds was expressed in a very simple, forthright slogan first printed during the early years of that decade and still in use: "Burpee's Seeds Grow".
Until World War I, Burpee traveled more than 30,000 miles each year-- in this country as well as Europe-- looking for seeds that would produce superior vegetables and flowers. But occasionally he found what he was looking for surprisingly close to home. Such was the case of the first Bush Lima Bean, which he found growing in the garden of a man named Asa Palmer in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1890. Until then, lima beans had been strictly climbing plants needing poles for support. After cutworms had wiped out Palmer's bean patch one year, he was stacking his poles for winter when he noticed one odd little plant still flourishing. It was definitely a bush rather than a climber, only a foot high, and it had three little pods each containing a single bean. He planted the seeds the following season, and two of them grew into low bushes bearing a generous yield. He then sold the seeds to W. Atlee Burpee.
Women work in the seed packaging department at Burpee in the early 1900s.
(as with most images in this article, click to enlarge)
By 1907, the bush lima bean as we now know it had been developed, and it was named The Fordhook . So exceptional are its eating qualities that it has remained a home gardener's favorite to this day. Lima bean aficionados speak of being "Fordhooked".
Another almost accidental discovery was Golden Bantam corn. At the turn of the century, yellow corn was grown strictly for livestock and poultry feed. Only white corn was considered fit table fare for civilized people. But a farmer named William Chambers in Greenfield, Massachusetts, grew a delicious unnamed yellow mutant sweet corn that became locally famous. When Chambers died, a friend of his found a handful of yellow kernels among his possessions and sold them to Burpee, who was understandably curious about them. The result, Golden Bantam , the first yellow sweet corn, was offered to the world in the catalogue for the first time in 1902.
At first, people were reluctant to eat or serve yellow corn, but market gardeners got customers to try it by throwing in some ears along with the white corn they sold. Burpee claimed it had a buttery corn flavor, without the expensive butter. That did it, and Golden Bantam corn became famous among lovers of corn on the cob.
In those early years, farmers rather than home gardeners made up the majority of customers; the catalog was called "Burpee's Farm Annual", and a lot more catalogue space was allotted to corn and cabbages, melons and beans, potatoes and squashes than to flower seeds and bulbs.
In 1890, for example, the first 87 pages were devoted to vegetables, the next 41 to flowers, and a 32-page supplement covered collie dogs, poultry, hogs, sheep, farm and garden tools, and a few late-entry vegetables and flowers, evidently added at the last minute.
But flowers did account for a substantial portion of the mail-order market, and the company's founder began to make trips to southern coastal California, partly for the sake of flower cultivation. Although he continued to buy much of his seed from Germany and other European nations until World War I halted such imports, Burpee wanted to establish experimental and growing facilities near the Pacific Coast to provide better service for the western part of the country. At the same time he was seeking a place to test and produce hardy seeds for cool-weather agricultural and floral crops, especially sweet peas. At that time, the sweet pea was the favorite annual flower grown in gardens all across the United States.
This was why, in 1909, he established Floradale Farms at Lompoc, in Santa Barbara County, California. The Spencer sweet pea, an improved and very popular variety, was brought to America by Burpee and grown in California, where further development took place. The Floradale site was chosen because it was situated in an ideal valley, protected by a mountain range that runs from east to west (rather than the more usual north-to-south orientation). It has what might be called a "European climate," cool but without great temperature fluctuations, and constantly humid rather than subject to heavy sporadic rains. Indeed, Lompoc remains one of the rare spots for outdoor flower seed production in the world, along with Erfurt, Germany; East Anglia, UK, and certain valleys in Kaskmir, India. (In the decades since 1909, Burpee has added many other extensive breeding and growing facilities, and such farms are now located in Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, northern and southern California, and Costa Rica.)
When Burpee established Floradale, a brilliant though eccentric plant breeder named Luther Burbank was hard at work in Santa Rosa, California, and had begun to achieve lasting fame. Although Burbank made some notorious mistakes (chief among them being his unshakable belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which had been disproved by Mendel), he managed to achieve revolutionary results with potatoes, plums, berries, and a great many spectacular ornamental plants.
Luther Burbank was a cousin of W. Atlee Burpee (Burbank's mother having been a Burpee). The Burpees knew of Burbank's work, of course, and he knew of theirs.
While in California, W. Atlee Burpee visited the "wizard of multiple crosses and graftings," and afterward Burbank made an eastern tour to see at first hand what breeders in other parts of the country were doing. In a subsequent letter to Burpee, Burbank commented: "Your Fordhook Trial Grounds were the best of all my eastern object lessons. I had no idea of their extent and value, not only to yourself, but to your customers, and eventually to everyone who cultivates the soil."
W. Atlee Burpee died in 1915, by which time his company was sending out a million catalogs a year, and his 22-year-old son David became head of the firm. David Burpee maintained the close relationship with Luther Burbank. Before Burbank died in 1926, he had started a small seed company, and after his death Burpee acquired the rights to the seeds as well as Burbank's experimental work, including the breeding records, or "stud book". As a result, a number of Burbank's splendid flowers and vegetables were added to the Burpee line.
Soon after David Burpee took over the company's management, World War I precipitated a shortage of seeds-- but also made America rather than Europe the world's leading seed supplier. Today, most Americans know about (and the older ones remember) the Victory Gardens of World War II, but the "War Gardens" of World War I are all but forgotten. This reminiscence was written by David Burpee:
" Food will win the war , we were told by Washington and I decided the best way I could help our country's war effort was by showing people how to grow a good share of their food right in their own back yards. To dramatize this, I set up what we called War Gardens in a number of cities. The biggest attention-getter was the one in New York. It was in Union Square, directly opposite an imitation battleship bristling with wooden guns aimed at the tomatoes and cabbages� It was a huge success. I would guess that that garden alone must have started thousands of people gardening."
Although hybridizing had always been one technique for seeking improvement in Burpee seeds, selective breeding rather than hybridization was emphasized by Burpee and all horticulturists until the late 1930s. Luther Burbank-- despite his own successful hybridizing experiments-- had declared that "selection is the beginning and end of plant improvement." Gradually, David Burpee began emphasizing the potential of hybrids. As he said, "Crossing two strains of the same or different species to create something entirely new brought another dimension to horticulture The Big Boy Tomato, the Early Hybrid Crenshaw Melon, and the Red and Gold Marigold are just a few of the outstanding hybrids we ve developed. Hybrids are often, for some reason we don't fully understand, stronger-growing and more disease-resistantthan either of the parents."
Flowers were David Burpee's great love, and during those years Burpee's "Hall of Fame" was enhanced by the Double Hybrid Nasturtium (1934), Crown of Gold Marigold (1937), Red and Gold Marigold (1939), and many others. Marigolds were David's particular favorites-- and are still Burpee's most popular flower seeds-- so it is not surprising that a great many of the world's most outstanding marigold varieties have been developed at Burpee.
Not every marigold experiment was an immediate success, however. Marigold foliage exudes terpene, a chemical defense against plant-eating creatures, and its odor is unpleasant to some people. In a long search for an odorless marigold, David Burpee ordered seeds from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. The search was futile until at last he received a letter from the Reverend Carter D. Holton, who had discovered an odorless marigold in China. A subsequent experimental planting at Fordhook was considered so important that armed guards were posted to prevent theft of the revolutionary plants. Most of them were scrawny, but one burst forth in great shimmering golden blossoms-- and seeds from it resulted in the 1937 introduction of the Crown of Gold Marigold.
Sales were expected to soar. Instead they dipped. A great many people associated the flowers with the characteristic odor of the leaves, and they didn't want an odorless marigold! Fortunately, sales recovered quickly because the company offered both the odorless and odorous varieties.
Horticulture took another giant step during the 1940s, when Burpee's experimental breeders began to use tiny amounts of a natural substance from the crocus plant called colchicine to "shock" the chromosome structures of flowers, thus getting them to burst forth in spectacular new forms. Snapdragons are especially inclined to benefit from this treatment. This is why the blossoms of Super Tetra Snapdragons, such as Bright Scarlet and Rosabel , stand out like dazzling beauty queens. Colchicine also enabled researchers to transform the common wild black-eyed Susan into a magnificent garden flower called the Gloriosa Daisy, and gave us the Ruffled Jumbo Scarlet Zinnia with blooms up to seven inches across!
One might say that the 1940s, which brought still more hybridizing experiments and the enormous Victory Garden Movement of World War II, ended the first era of Burpee history and ushered in the modern era of home gardening. Since World War II, there have also been historic experiments-- and dramatic advances-- in agriculture. Such changes have affected not only the large farms and house vegetable gardens that typify prosperous western nations but even the small family plots of subsistence farmers in underdeveloped countries. In addition, our current era is marked by a new awareness of the environment and a new enthusiasm for activities that directly involve us with nature.
Burpee has been a trend-setting leader in these areas. Part 2 of this history, beginning in the 1940s and bringing the unique Burpee legacy up to date continues on the next page.
At the Floradale experimental/developmental station, extremely successful American flower and vegtable varieties were developed.
David Burpee had always been very close to his celebrated father and shared the same enthusiasms. From early childhood, the boy had been intrigued by the mysteries of plant genetics and had displayed a strong aptitude for creative gardening. No doubt, he hoped one day to assume the helm at W. Atlee Burpee & Co., Seed Growers, but in 1912, when he was nineteen, David hoped that day would come in the far distant future. He was just beginning his scientific training in horticulture at Cornell University when his father's health failed, and the boy was forced to return home to help manage the family business. Back in Pennsylvania, he continued to study on his own, voraciously reading all the available literature on the subject and at the same time gaining practical, on-the-job training.
Only three years later, W. Atlee Burpee died and David Burpee, at the age of twenty-two, found himself heading the firm at a critical time when war in Europe had begun to affect seed development and production in disastrous ways. Fortunately, he had the managerial assistance of his brother W. Atlee, Jr. and several very able executives and horticulturists, working as a team to overcome unexpected obstacles and maintain the momentum that had been built up by the founder.
A farming and gardening crisis arose in America when sources of seed withered as quickly as if countless plants had been killed by a devastating blight. Germany at that time was the world center of plant research and seed production, and other European nations- -France, Holland, and England in particular-- also supplied a large percentage of seeds that were made suitable to American soil and climate through selective breeding at experimental facilities such as Burpee's Fordhook Farms near Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Animosities between Germany and other European nations had been heating up for several years, and leaders in several American industries-- including agriculture and horticulture-had long before foreseen both the possibility of a large-- scale war and the resulting disruptions in international trade. This was one of the reasons why W. Atlee Burpee had established Floradale Farms at Lompoc, California, in 1909. During World War I, his son David opened half a dozen regional breeding sites and sales offices in the United States and Mexico.
Throughout the war and afterward, both Fordhook and Floradale continued to develop extremely successful American flower and vegetable varieties from ancestral European stock. And in ensuing years, additional experimental/developmental stations would be opened in California, several other states, and even abroad.
Horticulture was David Burpee's driving passion, but by no means his sole interest. Although his father was his hero-- the man he wished to emulate throughout his life-- he keenly admired certain key characteristics of two more famous men.
One of these was Phineas T. Barnum, the celebrated showman who had all but invented the technique of the publicity campaign. This may puzzle horticultural historians for two reasons: David Burpee was a rather shy, unassuming person, whereas P.T. Barnum was a flamboyant extrovert; and whereas Barnum relished a good hoax, Burpee was notorious for his scrupulous honesty. In the latter respect, David invariably followed the example of his father, who had printed an apology to his customers in his 1914 catalog because he thought the cover picture showed a tomato larger than any that an average gardener could expect to grow. (A great many customers surprised him that year by sending him snapshots of giant tomatoes grown from his seeds - tomatoes rivaling the one on the cover!)
However, David Burpee, while insistent on total integrity, was quick to adopt and modernize the novel approach to promotion and advertising pioneered by Barnum. On one occasion, he had promotional leaflets dropped from an airplane-- and Burpee was the world's first company to deliver seeds to customers by air. In 1911, W. Atlee first had seeds delivered by air when an important order missed a ship's sailing time. Unfortunately, when the package was dropped from the plane, it missed the boat and the seeds fell into the sea.
On another occasion, when he was about to introduce his first-of-their-kind Double Hybrid Nasturtiums in 1934, someone stole an enormous quantity of the seeds from an experimental field-- a $25,000 loss that
was especially shocking because industrial spying and theft are extremely rare in the horticultural business. Promotionally, at least, Burpee gleaned a profit from the loss by making sure the press thoroughly covered his hiring of a detective (who failed to track down the culprit) as well as his hiring of two armed deputy sheriffs to guard his next seed crop.
In subsequent decades, he "handed out seed packets the way John D. Rockefeller handed out dimes," to quote one reporter, and found numerous other ways to capture the nation's attention. He named flowers after Helen Hayes, Mamie Eisenhower, and Pennsylvania neighbor Pearl S. Buck, and he "starred" in one of Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" TV programs at his Pennsylvania headquarters (making sure the TV cameras captured his latest plant introductions). During World War II, Burpee vigorously promoted victory gardens, and although genuine patriotism was his primary motivation, the victory-garden movement was instrumental in turning non-farming Americans into vegetable gardeners, with Burpee as their foremost seed supplier. He desperately wanted to endow the 1945 catalog cover with a V-for-Victory (and victory-garden) theme, but the government would have frowned on the printing of a large symbolic V for commercial purposes. His art staff solved the problem very cleverly. The 1945 cover dominantly featured his new red chard, called Rhubarb Chard, in its natural shape-- a great V. To the left of the V was his new orange-colored Jubilee Tomato, which at least some viewers have interpreted as symbolizing the globe. Above the V was a cluster of large, plump carrots-- sufficiently bomb-shaped to help support the subliminal message.
Throughout David Burpee's career, he put great effort into the development of flowers and vegetables of many kinds, but new and improved marigolds were his greatest love, and by 1960 he had helped make marigolds America's most popular flower. That year, he registered as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and launched a campaign to have the marigold officially named the national flower. He enlisted the support of Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who was eloquent in his championing of the marigold, telling the Senate, "Its robustness reflects the hardihood and character of the generations who pioneered and built this land into a great nation". For many years thereafter, Burpee made certain Dirksen was well supplied with marigolds every season. And Burpee himself engaged in well-publicized debates with Pennsylvania Senator Hugh Scott, who championed the rose. Most of the public also favored the rose, but all that opposition just served to provide unparalleled publicity for Burpee marigolds.
Indeed, marigolds were the focus of David Burpee's longest experimental project and greatest promotional exploit. In 1954, he offered a $10,000 prize to the first gardener who could provide seeds for a white marigold -- something that simply didn't seem to exist. A pale lemon color was the closest his professional breeders had come. During the next two decades, more than 80,000 customers sent in seeds for testing. Some of them won $100 prizes for good tries, but the winner would have to produce a flower 2 1/2 inches wide and as white as Burpee's "Snowstorm" Petunia.
By 1975, Burpee's breeders had come closer than any of the submissions received with a variety called the "Snowbird", the whitest marigold developed to that day. At that point, Burpee and a panel of six horticultural professors reviewed the six top submissions and awarded the $10,000 to Alice Vonk, the widow of an Iowa farmer. Taking into account the contest costs, the prizes, and the development of the "Snowbird", that marigold was the world's costliest flower, but David Burpee considered the money well spent. Never had so many gardens across America been planted with marigolds.
Just as Barnum inspired Burpee's quest for effective promotion, Napoleon-- one of David's boyhood heroes-- inspired certain aspects of his approach to business as well as plant development.
When Napoleon arranged for a shipment of Italian art treasures to France as war reparations, he intentionally invented many delays, and on the occasion of each delay, he sent off dispatches and letters to hone interest and arouse impatience among the art lovers of Paris. He was "teasing" his public, so to speak, and Burpee decided to adopt this tactic in publicizing and staging flower shows. Starting well in advance, Burpee would let the public know he had some new and splendid novelty to display, but he would keep it somewhat mysterious. When the show opened he would tell the story of the novelty's creation, keeping the novelty itself hidden from the audience until he had whipped up excited curiosity, and only then would he flick the curtain aside. "Napoleon," he said, "taught me how to give a flower show".
He also admired Napoleon's frequent military strategy of using speed and mobility-- getting there first with the most and best-to achieve victory.
In 1933, when he was working almost feverishly to introduce the world's first double nasturtiums in a full range of colors, Burpee came down with typhoid fever and the project was delayed. Soon afterward, a couple of additional developmental setbacks made it seem that other seedsmen would win the race to unveil such hybrid nasturtiums.
Taking another lesson from Napoleon, Burpee reduced the project's schedule from three years to one, hired 200 extra workers to cross-pollinate flowers for a month in order to produce some 50,000 crosses, had the resulting seeds rushed from California to Pennsylvania by air mail, and by the following spring achieved another first.
Like Bonaparte, David Burpee was the kind of "general" who preferred to be with his troops-- a very able immediate staff of management executives, sales people, logistics managers, and breeders. He was a peripatetic leader, always seeming to be on his way to or from somewhere (often accompanied by key staff members) to see growers, customers, horticultural experts, or anyone with a legitimate contribution to make to the improvement of flowers and vegetables. He took a direct hand in purchasing, production, and the development of new offerings. He became a leading expert in hybridization, his cherished specialty, and his Napoleonic campaigns in this specialty became his greatest contribution to American plant development and his greatest legacy for today's gardeners.
The almost immeasurable importance of hybridization lies in the results evident in first-generation hybrids-- the overall quality described by the experts as "hybrid vigor". That simple term encompasses a number of crucial characteristics. Hybrids-- especially first-- generation hybrids-grow and mature faster (thus producing fruit or flowers faster) than standard varieties, are more uniform, yield a greater abundance of fruit or flowers, and resist disease and/or adverse conditions better. And all that is in addition to achieving special characteristics such as desired color, large or small size, petal profusion, fragrance, or (in the case of vegetables) flavor.
David Burpee was the first commercial horticulturist to recognize the potential of hybrids. His firm was to home gardening what Macintosh was to the development of personal computers. He believed-and proved-that he and his colleagues could revolutionize flower and vegetable growing, and at the same time make life easier and more enjoyable for gardeners.
For example, a hybrid may require less fertilizer and less ideal soil than the parent strains, and less care throughout the growing season. Denis Flaschenriem, who was research manager at Burpee, once remarked that "we work for the modern-day gardener who doesn't want to do extra work like pinching off dead flowers to get the live ones to last." That objective isn't new; it was originated by D. B., as the staff called their leader.
Less labor plus better results for the gardener can require an enormous amount of labor by the creators of a given plant. Take, for example, a self-pollinating plant like the tomato. In order to develop an improved hybrid, crossbreeding is necessary, and the plant must be prevented from pollinating itself or the offspring will just duplicate the parent. Time and time again, hundreds of workers have had to make their way through an experimental field emasculating tomato blossoms-removing each anther, the male part that produces pollen. The desired pollen from another type of tomato plant must then be extracted, collected, and applied to each ovule-bearing pistil. Since a fertile hybrid will carry recessive genes from both parents, the seedsman cannot call it quits at this point and simply allow the first-generation hybrids to breed second-generation hybrids� and then a third generation and so forth. If this is done, hybrid vigor will diminish and the resulting plants will be like one or the other original ancestor. The horticulturist will be right back where he started.
Thus, first-generation hybrids are the best, and the painstaking process must be repeated for each seed crop. Are the results worth all that? The answer is, of course, a resounding yes, as can be seen from the many hybrid flowers and vegetables developed by D. B. and his breeders, and by their successors at Burpee right up to the present.
The improvement of flowers was a near obsession with D. B., and it was his team that produced the first successful hybrid flower in 1934, the Double Hybrid Nasturtium. A strong believer in the sales value of a novelty, he introduced the odorless Crown of Gold Marigold three years later. That one was created by selective breeding rather than hybridization (and it proved to be no more popular than standard marigolds), but by then he and his breeders were envisioning further innovations. In 1939, they introduced the first hybrid marigold, forthrightly named the Burpee Red and Gold Hybrid Marigold.
Next, as World War II brought food shortages (and governmental concern that those shortages might worsen), the victory-garden movement gained momentum and the Burpee breeders turned their attention to ideal vegetables for home gardeners. There were no overnight successes, but two momentous results finally made their appearance in 1945-the Burpee Hybrid Cucumber and the Fordhook Hybrid Tomato. D. B. himself remarked that, "The only thing customers complain about is that the cucumber bears more than they can eat."
As for the Fordhook Hybrid Tomato, it was quite simply the best that had been developed up to that time. But in 1949, it and all other tomatoes of typical size, texture, taste, and growing characteristics were eclipsed by Burpee's Big Boy Tomato-- another hybrid and a runaway success. The Big Boy (still extremely popular today despite the introduction of many other excellent strains) is actually ancestral to all of today's best varieties. In addition to its marvelous taste, texture, aroma, and large size, its introduction brought the tomato grower a far greater reward for far less work. The hybridization had succeeded in reducing the size and vininess of the plant, so that only a single stake would be needed per plant, while increasing each plant's yield so enormously that the gardener had two or three times more tomatoes. Furthermore, the Big Boy needed less or no fertilizer and was significantly more tolerant of foliage diseases. The credit for this astonishing improvement must go to Dr. Ovid Shifriss, who was in charge of vegetable breeding at Fordhook Farms.
It's worth adding that during this same period, some improved vegetables became available not through hybridizing but through worldwide search followed by selective breeding (the primary strategy of the company's founder more than half a century earlier).
The Burpees were friends of Pearl Buck, and they corresponded with several missionaries in the Far East. It had, in fact, been a missionary, Carter Holton, who sent over the first (unsuccessful) seeds for odorless marigolds. It was also Holton who later discovered and supplied the mild, delicious Burpee White Radish and a strange vegetable called celtuce-so named because it's rather like a lettuce but with a strong midrib like a celery stalk.
Another missionary in China, the Rev. E. L. Lutz, gave Burpee some seed he brought back to the United States when he retired. It was known in China by several names, all difficult to pronounce, so Burpee called it tampala, the name by which it was known in India. A member of the amaranthus genus, it tastes somewhat like spinach but sweeter, and it's highly nutritious. It first appeared in the 1944 catalog; some years later, it was given a more practical, recognizable, marketable name-Fordhook Spinach.
After the war, the quest for floral hybrids seemed to accelerate again, with often spectacular results: the Silver Medal Hybrid Multiflora Petunia (1949), Yellow Climax Hybrid Marigold (1958), Double Supreme Hybrid Snapdragon (1960), Firecracker Zenith Hybrid Zinnia (1963), Topper Hybrid Snapdragon (1964), Yellow Nugget Hybrid Marigold (1966), First Lady Hybrid Marigold (1968), Wedding Bells Hybrid Snapdragon (1973), Red Nugget Hybrid Marigold (1976) and so on, with beautiful new strains making their appearance every few years since then. It has been said that a single mail-order company-- perhaps even a single man-- popularized the zinnia, >marigold, and nasturtium in American gardens.
World War II sowed the seeds of a new era, marked by sociological changes that affected every aspect of life, including farming and gardening. With a great many of the nation's adult males in the armed forces or war-related work, labor shortages drew more women than ever before into America's work force, and many of those women were doing jobs previously regarded as suitable only for men. Rosy the Riveter was not a figment of propaganda but very real, and eager to prove her strength and stamina. Many women worked extra shifts or abnormally long hours and then spent their days off victory-gardening-- strongly motivated by a combination of patriotism, food shortages, and the need to economize. More women and youngsters than ever before were tending gardens.
Among civilian men, too, the number of gardeners rose. The Dust Bowl and Depression years had driven many people from agricultural areas to cities and suburbs in search of employment. The war brought a minor upsurge in farming yet men could still find better-paying work in industries that had converted to production of war materials. Having transplanted themselves from crop fields to cities and towns, they too tilled victory gardens, and by the time peace came they were dedicated gardeners. Some observers also speculated that among women especially, but among men, too, wartime living had increased people's self-sufficiency and their pride in being self-sufficient; it may well be that World War II spawned a pemanent do-it-yourself craze.
The post-war years of prosperity accelerated changes in American interests and activities. The movement to the suburbs continued (as it still does). Large numbers of Americans were becoming more affluent, and their leisure time increased. Moreover, food shortages had ended and the cost of staple foods came down somewhat after the war, so the style and character of gardening changed. It wasn't a matter of necessity now, but of pleasure. The new gardener was a hobbyist and experimenter. Ease and convenience are important to a hobbyist, so backyard gardens began to be dominated by easy-to-plant, easy-to-tend, fast-maturing, long-yielding, tasty vegetables. And in flower gardens, annuals became ever more dominant, as these flowers take little time and are easy to grow.
The success of Burpee's modern breeding achievements must be credited in large part to Jerome H. Kantor, who was the very able manager of Floradale, but D. B. himself participated actively. Once, on a tour of a 40-acre breeding field, D. B. was heard to offer guidelines such as, "We need some more of these yellows...Jerry, make a note--let's select some plants for more definite or darker markings, some for striped or variegated..." Before leaving the field, he dictated a brief memo: "In all cases, select for bold, straight, broad petals. Avoid droopiness. Look for small plants with large flowers." And that, of course, was precisely what the customers got.
Fortunately, D. B. managed to temper his hands-on approach with reliance on a talented team.
In 1950, for example, the great plant breeder John Mondry discovered a freak, or "sport" zinnia in a row of 66 at Santa Paula Farms in California. Since it was an all female plant, bearing no pollen, it was easile pollinated by bees that had fed on a nearby zinnias selected for crossbreeding. Mondry's work (with the bees diligent assistance) led to the introduction of Superb Hybrid Zinnias in the 60s. Others who made significant contributions include Jeannette Lowe, who named the Twinkles Phlox and was an experimental flower breeder at Santa Paula before coming east to direct customer service; Theodore Torrey, director of vegtable research; Ellwood Pickering, a talented flower breeder at Floradale who was instrumental in the development of the First Lady Marigold - and many others, including scientists from the academic community.
During the 50s and 60s, Burpee diversified, becoming a pioneer in the breeding-plant industry, particularly with zinnias, petunias, and marigolds that blazed with bold American colors - bright reds, violets, pinks, and yellows (in contrast to European floral traditions). And during that same period, the firm's "color packet" retail business grew even bigger as the trend toward impulse buying became pervasive. However, there was and still is, a sharp difference between retail and mail-order offerings. Today the selection available through mail order is nearly four times larger and includes many more exotic varieties. It seems that a gardener shopping in a store is attracted to familiar, tried and true plants, while someone with catalog in hand can read full descriptions and experiment successfully with something unfamiliar but suited to local climate and soil. This may help to explain why flowers now account for a full half of Burpee's business and why an astonishing 44 percent of American families now maintain flower or vegtable gardens or both.
Finally, many people sow large-seeded plants such as peas, beans and corn, after the soil is loose and workable. These are a specialty of the late-season color packet business since it is easier to shop for these items in retails stores in May, than it is to order them from the catalogue.
During the 50s and 60s, Burpee became closely allied with another very successful horticultural company, George J. Ball, Inc. This firm, founded in 1902, might be described as Burpee's commercial counterpart, first specializing in supplying cut and pot flowers to florists and later, under the leadership of George Jacob Ball's two sons, Carl and Victor, expanding to supply plants and seeds for greenhouses and the food-processing industry-- for example, varieties of tomatoes which are ideal for the production of tomato paste and ketchup.
It was the Ball company that had introduced such popular flowers as the Super Elfin Impatiens, developed by Carl Ball and Claude Hope, the legendary Costa Rican plant breeder. This pioneering of modern impatiens varieties was carried on by George Ball, Jr. with the development of the bold orange Tango (winner of the All-America Award) and African Queen (the world's first yellow garden impatiens).
By 1972, Burpee was regularly introducing new varieties from outside programs such as Ball's as much as from its own.
By the 1980 s, the two companies had become interdependent, with Ball supplying a host of new products and Burpee opening up an ever-growing consumer marketplace. A merger followed in 1991. George Ball, Jr., who has been extremely active in flower development, came from his firm's research and production department to become President of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., guiding the merged corporation into the future. What that future holds for the nation's gardeners is what they ve always expected and received from Burpee-- the highest possible quality, conscientious service, an enormous quantity of selections, constant improvement, and the kind of creative innovation that you can see in the latest catalogue and will see in those to come.
David Burpee is remembered by horticulturists the world over as an innovator, but his philanthropic activities are perhaps not as well known. In these activities he was strongly encouraged by his wife, Lois, the daughter of a Scottish missionary who had been the first Western doctor in Palestine at the turn of the century. Mrs. Burpee spent her formative years in Palestine and China, and retained close ties with missionaries and others working in Asia. She and her husband frequently corresponded with these missionaries and, as noted in the accompanying history, occasionally obtained the seeds of new flowers and vegetables from them. David Burpee's philanthropic interests included aid to underdeveloped countries and, under his leadership, W. Atlee Burpee & Co. became the world's largest donator of vegetable seeds, working in close cooperation with the United Nations agency, CARE.
A related interest was his desire to promote improved international relations, and it was through his efforts and leadership that the first Chinese/American Horticultural Conference took place in Philadelphia shortly after World War II.
Scientists at Bucknell University had provided their knowledge and skills in the development of several unique Burpee seeds, and David Burpee was deeply appreciative. His final philanthropic act was to bequeath a significant portion of his estate to Bucknell to endow a genetics and research chair in his name.