By Lee Foster
(I am updating the 52 chapters in my book Northern California History Weekends for a new edition. This chapter is about agricultural visionary Luther Burbank’s gardens in Santa Rosa, California. This and other books of mine on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page at http://amzn.to/1jl9Lnz.)
Sonoma’s boutique agriculture, supplying the great chefs of Northern California, owes much to the wizardry of Luther Burbank. Burbank was the most innovative horticulturist in California history. He became known as the “Plant Wizard.” The title referred his development of his “Burbank potato” and many other successful plant experiments. You can visit his amazing gardens in Santa Rosa, where he lived and worked.
In the 1870s, Burbank started his work on a four-acre plot in Santa Rosa. Later he expanded to another 18 acres near Sebastopol. Today the first place to visit is his home and the adjacent gardens in Santa Rosa. Burbank’s legacy is immense. Only a small part of it is due to his Burbank potato. But that hybrid was the basis of the famous “Idaho potato” of today. And Americans eat a lot of spuds. The average person is said to consume 142 pounds of potatoes per year.
The Historic Story
The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa celebrate the pioneering work of this distinguished horticulturist.
Long before Silicon Valley made California world famous for electronics innovation, Burbank was pioneering another area of human endeavor. He was developing new fruit, nut, and flower varieties. And these creations thrive in the Golden State. California owes much to Burbank’s agricultural inventions. For instance, the state produces nearly a third of the nation’s food. However, anyone with a delight in nature and gardening will enjoy touring Burbank’s house, greenhouse, and gardens.
The gardens are open every day of the year. Before or during a visit, you might want to enjoy the excellent audio program. It is available on your cell phone by calling 707-623-1055. Expert commentary describes aspects of Burbank at 28 stations around the garden. April through October are the more robust months in the garden. As is to be expected, those months are when the growing season is lush. Also, that’s when the tours operate. In addition, the house, greenhouse, and carriage house exhibits are open.
Luther Burbank was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts, on March 7, 1849. In California his birthday is now celebrated as Arbor Day. Then people plant trees as a gesture in his memory. For more than 50 years, Burbank made his home in Santa Rosa.
Increase Food Supply
Burbank wanted to increase the world’s food supply. To accomplish this, he developed plants with more desirable characteristics. However, he did not employ genetic modification in the modern manner. Rather, he had an uncanny ability to spot slight variations that appear in plants from time to time. When he saw some desirable quality, he would save the seed and use it. For trees, he would graft. Burbank was greatly influenced by Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. By careful breeding, Burbank could speed up the evolution of desirable plants.
For instance, he developed a spineless cactus. The hybrid could be grown in deserts and used as forage for livestock. In his long career, Burbank bred more than 800 new varieties of plants. Among his creations were 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains. Furthermore, he was especially successful with stone fruits. One of his creations is the landmark varietal the Santa Rosa plum. He died in 1926 and was buried near his greenhouse on the property.
On a self-guide tour any day, you can see the gardens. In the April-October docents give guided tours. They discuss his home, the greenhouse, and the carriage house. The Gardens cover more than an acre. Various areas show medicinal herbs and cut flowers. You can also see roses, wildlife habitats, and ornamental grasses. The Gardens display many new horticultural introductions. Labels give both the common and botanic names for ease and accuracy of identification.
Burbank’s Home is a Greek Revival house. He started living there in 1884. His widow Elizabeth stayed on until her death in 1977. The Greenhouse was designed and built by Burbank in 1889. It includes a re-creation of his office with many of his garden tools. The Carriage House has more exhibits about the ongoing impact of Burbank’s life work.
Burbank’s Famous Friends
Burbank’s social circle included other giants in their respective fields of innovation. One famous photo shows him entertaining Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. He was a celebrity of his era. A timeline of historic photos is a regular fixture in the garden. The public also became aware of Burbank through his seed catalog. Published in 1893, the catalog was titled New Creations in Fruits and Flowers. He once wrote, “I shall be content if because of me there shall be better fruits and fairer flowers.”
In addition, he was an enthusiast about the Sonoma region for agriculture.
“I firmly believe,” he wrote in 1875, “from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned.”
The fitting complement to a look at Burbank’s house is to take a ramble over the rural countryside. During your hike, use the Sonoma County Farm Trails Map & Guide (www.farmtrails.org/map-guide). The guide is readily available from local tourism sources. With the map in hand, you can visit dozens of small producers, who grow everything from apples to winter squash.
Conveniently, the map divides the county into areas. For example, you can seek out who raises grass-fed pork or shiitake mushrooms. Look at the calendar. It alerts you to the harvest periods. That’s when you can buy harvested crops or even pick them yourself. Without a doubt, Sonoma is the center of boutique farming. And the celebrity chefs of Northern California count on it.
Santa Rosa is a main stop on Highway 101 going north from San Francisco. The Sonoma County Farm Trails Map & Guide carries you to the far reaches of the region.
Be Sure to See
The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens is at the corner of Santa Rosa and Sonoma Avenues in Santa Rosa, 204 Santa Rosa Ave.; 707/524-5445; www.lutherburbank.org. The Farm Trails map is available online and it also has its own website www.farmtrails.org.
Best Time of Year
You can see the Luther Burbank Home any time of the year. However, from April 1 to October 31 the house is open for tours, led by volunteers every day except Monday. In May there is a Mother’s Day Plant Sale. A Holiday Open House occurs the first weekend in December.
The gourmet produce fields of Sonoma County are lush for a long growing season, from late spring to autumn, so any time of the agricultural year can be interesting for the Farm Trails tours.
For a small, family-owned lodging in Santa Rosa a good choice is Hotel La Rose (308 Wilson St., Santa Rosa; 707/579-3200; www.hotellarose.com). Hotel La Rose is the only Sonoma County hotel to be listed with the National Trust Historic Hotels of America. The hotel is in the interesting Railroad Square area a few blocks from Burbank’s house. Opposite the hotel is a California Welcome Center, a good place to drop in for information of travel in Sonoma County and around California.
In keeping with the historic Railroad Square theme in the blocks close to the Luther Burbank house, an interesting restaurant choice is the La Gare French Restaurant (208 Wilson St.; 707/528-4355; www.lagarerestaurant.com). You might start with the escargot and proceed to the veal escalope. La gare means “railway station” in French. Before or after a meal, you might enjoy strolling around the brick-building environs of the district, perhaps with a stop at the Whistlestop antique shop (130 Fourth St.) and pick up a mint-condition wrapped copy of a Life magazine issue from the 1940s.
For Further Information
The overall visitor resource is Sonoma County Tourism (400 Aviation Blvd., Ste. 500, Santa Rosa; 707/522-5800 or 800/576-6662; www.sonomacounty.com). Santa Rosa has its own tourism site at www.visitsantarosa.com. The California Welcome Center at Railroad Square is a convenient stop for all kinds of travel information and brochures.