The Van Trump Report

How Atlee Burpee Parlayed Mom’s $1K Into Seed Empire

In 1876, 18-year-old W. Atlee Burpee, visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and gravitated to the halls dedicated to agriculture and horticulture, where he would make a decision that would change American gardens forever. Born on this day in 1858 to a well-established family in Philadelphia, where his father and grandfather were prominent physicians, Burpee had a passion for devising experimental breeding programs for poultry as well as writing scholarly articles and corresponding with prominent European breeders. One day when several English poultry experts arrived at the Burpee home, they were astonished to find that the learned expert with whom they had been corresponding was only 16 years old.

Atlee dropped out of medical school at 18 and with some funding from his mother, established his own mail-order poultry and livestock company. He began by breeding and selling chickens, dogs, and sheep, and when his livestock customers told him that they needed a reliable source for quality seed, he was quick to fill the need. By 1877, his second year in business, he set about reshaping his enterprise into the celebrated seed company we know today.

It’s worth mentioning that the Atlee Burpee & Company was notably different from any other seed business, as it was the first research-based seed company in the United States. Keep in mind that at the time, American seed companies relied on European breeders for most of their seed varieties but from his research and correspondence with customers, Burpee concluded that European-bred seeds were incompatible with American soil and climate conditions.

From the outset, Burpee seized on the relatively new retail idea, the mail-order catalog as the light and compact seeds were perfectly suited for delivery to rural America. I’m told that most of Atlee’s customers were farmers rather than home gardeners so he named his catalog “Burpee’s Farm Annual,” and was soon running the world’s fastest-growing mail-order seed company.

Interestingly, it was Burpee who developed Iceberg lettuce in 1894, the most iconic of the leafy green vegetable whose name is attributed to the fact that it was originally packed and transported on crushed ice, making the heads look like icebergs. Though iceberg doesn’t hold nearly the same level of nutritional value that say Romaine does, it still has the last laugh, as today it accounts for 70% of the lettuce grown in California. Burpee would also offer a high-performing new cabbage variety called ‘Surehead’, and in 1881, he introduced an improved carrot called ‘Long Orange’, followed by new and improved garden and Lima bean, celery and sweet pepper varieties throughout the 1880s. 

Burpee eventually purchased several hundred acres of farmland in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and within a few years, Fordhook Farm was transformed into a world-famous showcase of experimental gardens that developed outstanding new varieties. By the 1890s, Burpee was a household name, and it was in 1915 that the iconic 200-page Burpee catalog was sent to a million American farmers and gardeners.

By breeding the best varieties, offering multiple vegetables and delivering straight to homes across the country, Burpee’s success was entrenched in the space. I’m told he also insisted on quality and excellence in all aspects of the company and backed it up with the guarantee that if customers were not satisfied with their purchase, he would replace the seeds up to an entire year after the date of purchase. I should mention, that while Burpee’s passion laid with vegetable, flowers increasingly accounted for a large share of the burgeoning mail-order market, so Atlee established Floradale Farms in southern California to develop and grow seeds of a wide range of new ornamental varieties.

Unfortunately, Atlee took ill and died in 1915, but his 22-year-old son David who shared his passion stepped in and took over the business as WWI approached. As the war ensnared Europe, it would disrupt international trade in many areas, something we are currently all too familiar with, and David respond by opening half a dozen new regional breeding and seed production sites and sales offices in the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico. Then, during the World War II years, amid the Victory Garden movement, Burpee breeders focused on developing vegetables exceptionally suited for home gardeners, and introduced the ‘Burpee Hybrid Cucumber’ and the ‘Fordhook Hybrid Tomato’. Following the war, the ‘Big Boy’ tomato, introduced in 1949 was a trailblazer and is the ancestor of all of today’s best home garden varieties.

David had a passion for Marigolds, and with a strong belief in the sales value of innovation, he introduced the odorless ‘Crown of Gold’ Marigold in 1937, and the first-ever marigold hybrid, the succinctly named ‘Burpee Red and Gold’, in 1939. By 1960, a year when Burpee was mailing 4 million annual catalogs, he had helped marigolds become America’s most popular flower. Interestingly, In 1959, David made news when he registered as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., listing as his legislative interest a resolution designating the marigold as the U.S. national flower. He enlisted the support of Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who, in 1967, delivered a now-famous speech to the Senate, proclaiming the marigold’s “robustness reflects the hardihood and character of the generations who pioneered and built this land into a great nation.”

During the 1950s and 60s, Burpee began an alliance with another successful horticultural company, George J. Ball, Inc., founded in 1902 and specializing in plants and seeds for greenhouses and the food-processing industry. The Ball Company, like Burpee, was known for breeding novel new varieties, including the ‘Super Elfin’ impatiens and ‘Wave’ spreading petunias, and in 1991 George Ball bought Burpee seed and became the company’s President. 

It’s worth mentioning that In 2004, Burpee and DHL collaborated on the largest vegetable seed donation in history, delivering 5,000 pounds of onion, squash, and tomato seeds to Iraqi farmers, and in 2011, Burpee started the “Welcome Home Garden” program, donating seed to veterans, service members, and their families.

Today, Burpee is the world’s largest home garden seed and plant company, growing seed worldwide, and producing spring and fall plants in greenhouses in western Pennsylvania, and with offices and research facilities in the United Kingdom, Holland, and India. Over 140 years after its founding, the company remains faithful to W. Atlee Burpee’s vision and reflects his passion for innovation, quality, and customer service, which is contained in Atlee’s famous quote, “The Burpee business is built not for the present only, but with an outlook to the future. A business that has no vision of the future or the object of which is mere money-making would not be worth a life’s work.” Well said! (Source:,,

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