Luther Burbank's Spineless Cactus: Boom Times in the California Desert

Article excerpt

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Here's a way to end world hunger and make the desert bloom: take the common prickly pear cactus that grows wild throughout the Southwest, use hybridization and selection to "persuade" it to relinquish its sharp spines, plant the improved version across the arid regions of the world, and open up the range to grazing cattle.

That was the plan of Luther Burbank, California's most celebrated plant breeder in the early years of the twentieth century, and it captured the imagination--and the dollars--of a surprising number of people the world over. From 1905 to 1916, Burbank's spineless cactus was the center of an agricultural bubble held aloft by the combined winds of genuine need, popular science, the eternal pursuit of quick profits, and, most of all, the extraordinary fame of Burbank himself.

The story of the spineless cactus craze is a tragicomedy in several acts, with many prickly repercussions, but at the turn of the last century it was hardly an isolated example of California's pursuit of new and better crops. From grapes and olives in the Napa Valley to cotton in Kern County and dates in Indio, California was being transformed by agricultural innovation. All over the state, optimistic growers were busy draining, irrigating, terracing, tilling, and doing whatever else seemed necessary to transform the largely uncultivated Pacific paradise into a functioning commercial garden.

Burbank's spineless cactus plan never quite worked, as either cattle feed or instant riches, and its decade-long burst of promotion, cultivation, speculation, and exploitation is now almost lost in the crowded annals of financial miscalculation. Specimens still grow in many parts of California, often as unnamed components of the home garden, but both the man and his contribution to desert agriculture have faded from popular memory. (1) Like the eucalyptus tree, widely promoted during the same period as a fast-growing source of timber and now tolerated as a fragrant fire hazard of little or no commercial value, the spineless cactus, with its aura of easy profits, is a reminder of the race to riches that has characterized California history from the Gold Rush to the dot.com bubbles of the late twentieth century.

THE WIZARD OF SANTA ROSA

Excitement about the spineless cactus--a thorn-free variety of the Opuntia--had been building for several years when Burbank launched his newest plant wonder on the open market with a special twenty-eight-page catalog, The New Agricultural-Horticultural Opuntias: Plant Creations for Arid Regions, on June 1, 1907. In the timeless tradition of nursery catalogs, the publication featured enticing descriptions, testimonial letters, and optimistic projects of potential yields, here combined with laboratory analyses of the cactus's nutritional value and clear photographic evidence of the product's existence. In part, the catalog's simplistic style seemed more appropriate for young readers. "Everybody knows that Baldwin apples, Bartlett pears and our favorite peaches, plums and cherries cannot be raised from seeds," Burbank wrote. "The same laws hold true with the improved Opuntias, but fortunately they can be raised from cuttings in any quantity with the utmost ease. More truly they raise themselves, for when broken from the parent plant, the cuttings attend to the rooting without further attention, whether planted right end up, bottom up, sideways or not at all." (2)

Such simplicity did not come cheap, however. The marvelous new cacti were well beyond the reach of child and almost every adult; the price for complete possession of one of Burbank's eight new varieties ranged from one to ten thousand dollars. The New Agricultural-Horticultural Opuntias was aimed at professional plant dealers who would buy the prototypes, multiply them on their own grounds, and sell the results to the retail trade. This was Burbank's preferred method for disseminating his work, and both his extraordinary products and his eye-popping prices ensured huge publicity for the new spineless cactus, as it had for his other introductions in the past. …