W. Atlee Burpee
Sowing Seeds to Remain Close to its Roots
By Ilene Dube
If you’re a gardener, have ever planted a single seed, or even knew of someone who planted a single seed or read a book about such a person, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Burpee Seed Company.
What you may not have known was that founder W. Atlee Burpee started the company in nearby Philadelphia. In fact his Fordhook Farm, on 60 acres in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It operated as an inn for a number of years, and was the subject of an Architectural Digest feature in 2001, but is now a site where vegetables, annuals, and perennials are grown, tested, and evaluated. This year there are three days it is open: on June 21 for the International Master Gardener Conference; and on August 10 and October 5 for public viewing. (For further details, visit www.gardenconservancy.org.)
The Burpees were a well-established Philadelphia family descended from French Canadian Huguenots. The original family name, Beaupe, evolved with an Americanized spelling and pronunciation over the course of several generations.
Born in 1858, W. Atlee Burpee was expected to become a physician like his father and grandfather, but beginning in his early youth he was determined to pursue a different path. His boyhood hobby was poultry breeding — an interest that soon expanded to include the breeding of livestock, dogs, and plants, and he was fascinated by the nascent science of genetics.
As a teen, Atlee engaged in correspondence with English animal breeders. He published papers on his experiments in England, and the breeders came to visit his Philadelphia home, mistaking Dr. Burpee as the one with whom they’d been corresponding — not his 16-year-old son.
Burpee dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School to start his own animal breeding business, but after receiving letters from farmers who had emigrated from Europe complaining about the poor quality of seed here, he decided to go into the business of seeds. Shipping seed was easier and less costly than shipping animals, and 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, Burpee guaranteed satisfaction for one year from date of purchase or a replacement of the seeds.
Seeds were collected during Burpee’s tours of Europe. He found the best vegetable breeders in Germany, Holland, and Scandinavia, and the best flower breeders in England. He kept a notebook based on his observations, and that notebook eventually became the Burpee Seed Catalog. Its beautiful watercolor illustrations were created by immigrants from the Germantown neighborhood.
Almost immediately, Burpee began introducing his own varieties, from Surehead cabbage and Long Orange cabbage to the Stringless Green Pod Bean. Soon he discovered that the heirloom seeds from Europe did better in northern climates, and not so well in the southern U.S., where the European varieties were weak and susceptible to disease. Thus began a program of selective breeding and hybridization.
Fordhook Farm, Doylestown, Pa. (Smithsonian Postal Museum)
That’s where Fordhook Farm came into play. In 1888, Burpee bought the Doylestown property and began transforming it into a plant development facility. Here he could adapt the best European vegetables and flowers to American growing conditions.
The Burpees were friends of fellow Doylestown resident Pearl S. Buck and named flowers for her.
By the 1890s Burpee became the largest seed company in the world. Burpee traveled more than 30,000 miles each year in search of seeds that would produce superior vegetables and flowers. Sometimes he didn’t have to travel far from home to find exactly what he was looking for. Such was the case with the first bush lima bean, which he found growing in the garden of Asa Palmer in Chester, Pennsylvania. Until then, lima beans had been climbing plants. The new bean was aptly named the Fordhook.
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 for human consumption. 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. The result, Golden Bantam, the first yellow sweet corn, was offered in 1902. Burpee claimed it had a buttery corn flavor, without adding expensive butter. Golden Bantam corn became a favorite “on the cob.”
In the early years, farmers rather than home gardeners made up the majority of Burpee customers; the catalog was called Burpee’s Farm Annual and a lot more space was allotted to corn and cabbage, melons and beans, and potatoes and squashes than to flower seeds and bulbs.
David Burpee had always been close to his celebrated father and shared his enthusiasms, intrigued by the mysteries of plant genetics since childhood. He knew that someday he would assume the helm at W. Atlee Burpee & Co., but hoped that day would be in the distant future. He was just beginning his scientific training in horticulture at Cornell University when his father’s health failed, and David had to return home to help manage the family business.
W. Atlee Burpee died in 1915, by which time his company was sending out a million catalogs a year, and 22-year-old David became head of the firm. Soon after, World War I led to a shortage of seeds. Many know about the Victory Gardens of the World War II era, but David Burpee pioneered “War Gardens” during the first World War with the belief that the best way to help our country’s war effort was by showing people how to grow a good portion of their food right in their own backyards. To promote this, he set up War Gardens in a number of cities, including New York’s Union Square. Soon, thousands began growing their own.
David Burpee emphasized the potential of hybrids. In his words, “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 … stronger-growing and more disease-resistant than either of the parents.” A hybrid can grow with less fertilizer and less ideal soil than the parent strains, and require less care throughout the growing season.
Of course, these days we know that too much manipulation of our crops may not be a good thing. Ancient wild plants provided phytonutrients that are largely absent from our modern cultivated fruits and veggies. The preference for sweeter, starchier foods led to less nutritious staples common today, such as sweet corn. Bitter and brighter colored plants that were packed with nutrition have been largely replaced with sweeter, more muted varieties.
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.
Burpee’s Brandywine Tomato. (Smithsonian Postal Museum)
As the movement gained momentum, Burpee breeders turned their attention to ideal vegetables for home gardeners. Thus was born the Burpee Hybrid Cucumber and the Fordhook Hybrid Tomato. In 1942, celtuce — a cross between celery and lettuce — appeared in the catalog.
Burpee’s Big Boy Tomato, another hybrid, was introduced in 1949 and became a runaway success. The Big Boy is still popular today, due to its taste, texture, aroma, and large size, as well as ease in growing. The hybridization made it less of a vine so that only a single stake per plant is needed, while increasing each plant’s yield two or three times. The Big Boy needs less or no fertilizer and is significantly more tolerant of foliage diseases.
And yet heirloom tomatoes, while producing more vine and less fruit, as well as tomatoes that bruise easily, are often touted for superior taste. Keeping up with demand, Burpee offers not only heirloom tomatoes but potatoes, cabbages, okra, and more.
Perhaps you associate Burpee with the “burpless cucumber” — cukes that are sweeter and have a thinner skin than other varieties of cucumber, and are reputed to be easy to digest (an unproven claim). These are indeed sold through Burpee, but the cultivar is commonly available through most nurseries.
David Burpee in a field of marigolds. (Smithsonian Postal Museum)
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.
Remembered by horticulturists as an innovator, David Burpee’s philanthropic activities included aid to developing countries. He promoted improved international relations, and through his efforts the first Chinese/American Horticultural Conference took place in Philadelphia shortly after World War II. 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.
Today, the organization positions itself as an environmentally-friendly company, taking a stance against genetically modified crops, urging gardeners to save the bees and, during the Obama administration, made a $2.5 million gift to fund the White House Kitchen Garden. The company, bought by George Ball in 1991 (in March he named James Mattikow, formerly the Ferrara Candy Company’s chief commercial officer and Kraft’s vice president of signature brands, the new CEO), has even bred a “meatier” eggplant that is marketed for veggie burgers.
Ball, a Bard College graduate and past president of the American Horticultural Society, is also a gardening writer whose works include such pieces as a plea to First Lady Melania Trump to keep the White House Kitchen Garden.
At the 60-acre Fordhook Farm, hundreds of new vegetables, annuals, and perennials are still grown, tested, and evaluated. The original Burpee Seed House and 16 core acres are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to the test plots, there are display gardens of perennials, shrubs, and trees, blended into the landscape with sculpture by Steve Tobin.
Tobin, a friend of Ball’s, creates sculpture that resembles enormous root structures. “The root system is the most important part of the plant,” Ball has said. And by remaining close to Burpee’s roots, the organization has succeeded in keeping its position as a leader in the home gardening industry.