Born in Lancaster, Massachusetts, Burbank was brought up on a farm and attended Lancaster Academy for high school. At age 22, he purchased a 17-acre tract near Lunenburg where he began a 55-year plant breeding career.
In 1871 he developed the Burbank potato. He sold the rights for the potato for $150, which he used to travel to Santa Rosa, California. In Santa Rosa, he established a nursery garden, greenhouse, and experimental farms that have become famous throughout the world.
He worked by effecting multiple crosses of foreign and native strains to obtain seedlings, which he grafted onto fully developed plants for rapid assessment of hybrid characteristics.
Burbank carried on his plant hybridization and selection on a huge scale. At any one time he maintained as many as 3,000 experiments involving millions of plants. In his work on plums, he tested about 30,000 new varieties. The Plant Patent Act of 1930 amended U.S. patent law to permit protection of new and distinct varieties of asexually reproduced plants, other than tuber-propagated plants. This legislation resulted from the growing awareness that plant breeders had no financial incentive to enter plant breeding because they could not exercise control over their discoveries. In supporting this legislation, Thomas A. Edison testified: ' This (bill) will, I feel sure, give us many Burbanks.' Plant Patent Nos. 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 41, 65, 66, 235, 266, 267, 269, 290, 291, and 1041 were issued to Burbank posthumously.