Burpee is a privately owned seed company based in the Philadelphia area. As of 2011, the company has provided 135 years of service. The company’s slogan "Burpee's Seeds Grow" is backed by its guarantee of satisfaction; good for one year from the date of purchase, the company will refund the purchase price of your seeds or replace the seeds if you are not happy.
W. Atlee Burpee began as a poultry breeder, expanding into seeds in response to a demand by immigrant farmers. The farmers wanted seeds that would supply the vegetable crops with which they were familiar from their European homelands. Farmers also wanted seeds that offered high levels of purity and consistently good levels of germination. Burpee planned to switch to shipping feed and seed, as it was easier and less expensive than shipping animals.
The Burpee catalog offers yearly improvements on seed varieties. From the start, Burpee adapted European seed stocks to American growing conditions through hybridization and selective breeding. In addition to developing seed with more desirable characteristics, the company sought out mutations from local growers and seed savers. The Big Boy Tomato, the Early Hybrid Crenshaw Melon and the Red and Gold Marigold were among the company’s best hybrids. Hybrids provided increased strength and disease resistance in easier-to-grow plants, and first-generation hybrids offered growers the benefits of hybrid vigor, growing and maturing faster than standard varieties while producing uniform results and more fruit and flowers, in addition to special characteristics developed through breeding, according to the Burpee website.
Some plant names help identify Burpee seeds. The company named some flower seeds after famous U.S. women, such as Mamie Eisenhower, Pearl S. Buck and Helen Hayes. Hybrids such as Fordhook Spinach bear the name of the company’s plant development facility, Fordhook Farm, while others, such as Burpee's Big Boy Tomato, are named for the company.
New Flower Forms
Experimental breeders at the company began to use colchicine, a substance taken from crocus plants, to “shock” the chromosome structures of other plants and trigger them to take new forms beginning in the 1940s, leading to the production of the Gloriosa Daisy, showy blossoms of the Super Tetra Snapdragons and the massive 7-inch blooms of the Ruffled Jumbo Scarlet Zinnia, according to the company's website.
David Burpee furthered the name of the company through his promotion of marigolds. His efforts helped make the flowers the most popular in the country in 1960, after which he made it his personal mission to have the marigolds he loved named as the national flower. He became a registered lobbyist, debated the Pennsylvania senator who supported the rose as the flower of choice and gradually swayed public opinion away from the rose as part of his efforts. He began a contest offering a $10,000 prize to the first gardener to produce a white marigold. After decades of work, the company’s breeders developed the Snowbird white marigold, and the prize for best submission was awarded in 1975 to a woman from Iowa, closing the over 20-years-long promotion.
If seeds are GMO or genetically modified, they are not Burpee seeds. As of 2011, the company has never sold GMO seeds, and the current chairman and CEO George Ball promises the company will not sell such seeds in the future. Burpee does purchase a small amount of seed from a subsidiary of Monsanto called Seminis. George Ball once sat on the board of Seminis before it was acquired by Monsanto.