April 5 – Seeds of Greatness

Today’s Factismal: W. A. Burpee was born 155 years ago today.

If you are a gardener, or know someone who is, then you probably know the Burpee Seed Company. Every year, they send out catalogs advertising seeds for over a thousand different plants; millions of gardeners and farmers rely on Burpee seeds. But what you may not know is that W. A. Burpee was one of the earliest “teenage millionaires”.

Like the kids who make millions by writing computer applications at home, Burpee started out by breeding livestock and plants for use on his parent’s farm. By the age of fourteen, he had developed several new breeds of chicken and was corresponding with poultry experts around the world; several of his papers had been published in poultry breeding journals. So it was only natural that he decided to go into the breeding business.

A Burpee seed packet(Image courtesy UP)

A Burpee seed catalog
(Image courtesy University of Deleware)

When he turned 18, Burpee hornswoggled a loan of $1,000 from his mother (the equivalent of about $22,000 today), Burpee started selling chickens and corn seed to feed the chickens. But the farmers who came to his store weren’t satisfied; they wanted more seeds and Burpee obliged them. He soon added cauliflower, cucumbers, cabbages, and carrots to his seed catalog. And then Burpee realized that it was a lot easier to ship out seeds than it was to ship chickens. Though his company would sell livestock until the 1940s, their main focus became seeds.

Burpee traveled the world in support of his business. He’d bring back samples of the best seeds from each area, and try to improve them on the family farm (whcih he had bought from his parents with the money from his business). He’d breed the best corn from Iowa with the best corn from Nebraska to create a hybrid that would do better than either one in any state. And he did the same with watermelon, roses, and nearly every other plant available.

The 1896 Burpee seed catalog(Image courtesy Pennsylvania State University)

The 1896 Burpee seed catalog
(Image courtesy Pennsylvania State University)

By making the plants better and easier to grow, Burpee made it easier for farmers and gardeners to grow amazing plants. And that made it easier for them to buy their seeds from him. By the end of the century, the Burpee Seed Company was sending out catalogs to more than a million households and selling more seeds than all the other companies; it had become the largest and best-known seed company in the world.

Burpee used his company’s influence to introduce new foods to Americans. His conpany developed the Fordhook lima bean, bane of children’s dinners everywhere, and Golden Bantam sweet corn, turning somethng that had been used for animal fodder into people food; they also introduced iceberg lettuce, setting the plate for dieters across the globe.

Burpee was successful because he was always looking for new and interesting plants. If you’d like to do the same, then give Pericopsis a try. They are working to build an online encyclopedia of every tree type in the world:

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