Plant Diversity

Historical Interest in Plants

Who developed plant breeding into a modern science?

New kitchen gadgets aren’t the only things that need a patent; living plants are also patented. The first patent in the United States was received by Henry F. Bosenberg, a landscape gardener: U.S. Plant Patent no. 1 was given on August 18, 1931 for a climbing or trailing rose. And plenty more have been patented since: Between 1977 and 2011, just over 8,500 plant patents were granted to inventors (California and Florida with the most patents); worldwide, including the U.S., 18,376 plant patents were granted.

The plant patent inventors—growing plants from cucumbers to hydrangeas— have to follow certain criteria. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the inventor “has to have invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant (not including a tuber-propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state).” The grant lasts for twenty years and protects the inventor’s rights by stopping others from asexually reproducing, selling, or using the plant so reproduced. Interestingly enough, according to the patent office, algae and macro fungi are considered plants, but bacteria are not!

American botanist Luther Burbank (1849–1926) developed plant breeding as a modern science. His breeding techniques included crosses of plant strains native to North America and foreign strains. He obtained seedlings that were then grafted onto fully developed plants for an appraisal of hybrid characteristics. His keen sense of observation allowed him to recognize desirable characteristics, enabling him to select only varieties that would be useful. One of his earliest hybridization successes was the Burbank potato, from which more than 800 new strains and varieties of plants—including 113 varieties of plums and prunes—were developed. More than twenty of these plums and prunes are still commercially important today. (For more about breeding and plants, see the chapter “DNA, RNA, Chromosomes, and Genetics.”)


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