By Lee Foster
(I am updating the 52 chapters in my book Northern California History Weekends for a new edition. This and other books of mine on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page at http://amzn.to/1jl9Lnz).
This chapter is:
The Father of Sonoma Agriculture: Luther Burbank’s Legacy
In Brief: Sonoma’s boutique agriculture, supplying the great chefs of Northern California, owes much to the wizardry of Luther Burbank, the most innovative horticulturist in California history. He became known as the “Plant Wizard” as the public became aware of his “Burbank potato” and many other successful plant experiments. In the 1870s, Burbank started his work on a four-acre plot in Santa Rosa and 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 his “Burbank potato,” said to be the cultivar basis of the famous “Idaho potato” of today. This alone is a matter of some consequence in a country where 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 celebrates the pioneering work of this distinguished horticulturist.
Long before the dot-com companies of Silicon Valley made California world famous for electronics innovation, Burbank was pioneering another critical area of the human endeavor. He was developing the fruit, nut, and flower varieties that thrive especially in the Golden State. Partly because of his pioneering agricultural inventions, California produces nearly a third of the nation’s food. 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, 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, when the growing season is lush. Then the tours operate, and 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, and trees are planted as a gesture in his memory. For more than 50 years, Burbank made his home in Santa Rosa.
One of Burbank’s goals was to increase the world’s food supply by developing plants with more desirable characteristics. He did not employ genetic modification in the modern manner. Rather, he had a uncanny ability as a horticulturalist to spot the slight variations that appear from time to time in plants. 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, he could speed up the evolution of desirable plants.
For instance, Burbank developed a spineless cactus that could be grown in deserts and used as forage for livestock. In his long career Burbank bred more than 800 new varieties of plants, including some 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains. He was especially successful with stone fruits, developing such landmark varietals as 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 guide tours, docents discuss his home, the greenhouse, and the carriage house. The Gardens cover more than an acre and have areas showing medicinal herbs, cut flowers, roses, wildlife habitats, and ornamental grasses. Many new horticultural introductions are displayed, giving both the common and botanic names for ease and accuracy of identification. The Home is a Greek Revival house where Burbank lived starting in 1884. His widow Elizabeth lived here until her death in 1977. The Greenhouse was designed and built by Burbank in 1889 and 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 social circle included the other giants in their respective fields of innovation at the time. One famous photo shows him entertaining Henry Ford and Thomas Edison at his house. A timeline of historic photos is one of the displays always visible in the garden. Burbank’s fame as an inventive horticulturalist was assured with the popularity of his 1893 seed catalog 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.”
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 using the Sonoma County Farm Trails Map & Guide (www.farmtrails.org/map-guide), which 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. The map conveniently divides the county into areas. You can seek out who raises grass-fed pork or shiitake mushrooms. A calendar alerts you to the harvest periods, when you can buy harvested crops or even pick them yourself. Without the boutique farming of Sonoma, the celebrity chefs of Northern California would be stressed.
Getting There: 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.
Lodging: 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.
Dining: 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.