Seedsmen Hall of Fame
Honoring
Horticulturalists

David Burpee

David Burpee was born in 1893 and when his father, W. Atlee Burpee died, David dropped out of Cornell University at the age of 22 and took over the family business.

While his father's main area of interest was vegetables, David was interested in flowers.  World War I cut off overseas seed supplies and caused food shortages in the United States.  David began a “War Gardens” campaign, that formed the basis for the “Victory Gardens” campaign during World War II.  These programs were generally aimed at city and suburban people and taught them how to grow food during shortages caused by wartime.

In the 1930's the company began cross-breeding to produce hybrids that were healthier and more resistant to disease.  In 1932, 'Golden Gleam', a product of Mexico, was a double nasturtium, bearing ten petals to the ordinary blossom's five.  Seeing the potential and a chance to get ahead of the competition, he vigorously seized the opportunity.  Sweet-scented but limited to one color, he launched a breeding program to crossbred it with common nasturtiums. Forty thousand hybrid cross-breedings allowed him to by the 1937 seed catalog, dedicate four complete pages to all variations of nasturtiums.

The 'Big Boy' tomato was developed during this time, along with the 'Ambrosia' cantaloupe, as well as new kinds of petunias, and red and gold marigolds.  In the 1940s the company created new forms of flowers by altering their chromosomal structures using a chemical substance from the crocus plant called colchicine.  This led to varieties 'Bright Scarlet' and 'Rosabel' snapdragons and 'Ruffled Jumbo Scarlet' zinnia.  In 1960, Burpee mailed 4,000,000 seed annuals to customers.3

In 1970, David Burpee sold his company to General Foods. In 1979 the company passed to ITT.  David Burpee remained as a consultant until his death in June of 1980.  In 1991 the Burpee company was acquired by George J. Ball, Inc., a diversified horticultural family business.  Jonathan Burpee, the founder's grandson, was the last family member to work for the company. He was terminated in 1993.

Sources:

  1. Burpee Seed Catalogs

  2. Who Owns What

  3. "The Gardener's Gardener", TIME Magazine, June 6, 1960

  4. W. Atlee Burpee Seed Catalog Collection at the Victory Horticultural Library

  5. "Trapaeolum majus Burpeeii", TIME Magazine, January 20, 1936

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