Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Luther Burbank: Theosophical Horticulturist

John Algeo – USA

Luther Burbank (1849–1926) was doubtless the world’s most productive and innovative horticulturist. He developed more than 800 new plant varieties, including the Shasta daisy, the Freestone peach, and the Russet potato, which is now the most prominent in the world, used for example to make McDonald’s french fries. He was a friend of Thomas Edison and of Henry Ford, combining the inventive and productive geniuses of those two in his botanical work, detailed in a recent biography: The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants, by Jane S. Smith (New York: Penguin Press, 2009).

Burbank may have known nothing about the Theosophical Society, but he was Theosophical in his attitudes and his work procedures. He was also a friend of Paramahansa Yogananda, who says in his Autobiography of a Yogi that Burbank’s “heart was fathomlessly deep, long acquainted with humility, patience, sacrifice” and that Burbank believed the secret of improved plant breeding was love. Yogananda’s autobiography was dedicated “to Luther Burbank, an American Saint.”

Burbank’s techniques for developing new plants included grafting and hybridization, but he was not recognized as a scientist, partly because he did not keep careful records of his procedures and partly because he had a mystical sense of unity with nature that led him to use thought vibrations to encourage new plant developments. He believed that music, touch, or talking to plants and sending them the right sort of thoughts could encourage their development in desired directions. He believed in a sentient universe pervaded by magnetic or electrical forces and vibrations that allow every organism to respond to every other.

At the Scopes trial about teaching evolution in Tennessee, both sides asked Burbank to testify for them, for quite different reasons, as he both modified species and had a reverence for creation. He did not appear at the trial, but sent a letter in which he wrote: “Those who would legislate against the teaching of evolution should also legislate against gravity, electricity and the unreasonable velocity of light.” On the other hand, Burbank’s favorite author was Ralph Waldo Emerson, a pre-Theosophist who believed that “For the soul which knows itself no more as a unit, but as part of the universal Unity . . . there is no death.” The world is full of Theosophists unconnected with the Theosophical Society; Emerson and Burbank were two of them.


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