Hundreds of today's popular varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers are the result of the hard work of Luther Burbank, a curious, inventive, optimistic entrepreneur. Born in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1849, he had to leave school when his father died, so he never had the benefit of scientific or technical training. But he was an avid and curious gardener; one of his first discoveries was the Burbank Potato, the russet version of which is now the world's predominant spud for French Fries. Calla Lilies
Using the $150 proceeds of the sale of his potato seeds as a nest egg, he moved in 1875 to Santa Rosa, California, where his mother and sister soon joined him. There he established an experimental garden and greenhouse.
Today, the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa and the Burbank Gold Ridge Historic Farm in nearby Sebastopol provide a look into Burbank's life and work. In his lifetime, developers could not patent seeds or graftings as they do today, so he lived from one edition to the next of his seed catalog and from the plants he sold from his gardens. As soon as they were sold, other nurserymen hurried to take advantage of his work, making modifications as they went, and now it is impossible to reproduce many of his discoveries, Paradox Walnut but dedicated gardeners and researchers are diligently hunting examples -- if not the exact plants, then plants very similar to his. A visitor to the gardens can see some of the triumphs -- wonderfully large and fragrant roses, rainbow-colored calla lilies, the Shasta daisy (it took him 18 years to develop this flower), elephant garlic, spineless prickly pear cactus. One immense old tree is the Paradox Walnut, a cross between a Persian walnut and a California black walnut. This particular tree dates from about 1914 and occupies a central location near the greenhouse. It was intended for use as furniture wood, and in fact there is an example of a cabinet made of paradox walnut inside the Burbank house.
One of his "great failures", as the guide tells it, is the spineless cactus. Local ranchers wanted to find something they could use as cattle feed, without having to buy new plants each year. Burbank considered the plants growing wild in local pastureland and developed this spineless variant of the prickly pear. It was an immediate success, with buyers including Jack London and the pianist Ignace Paderewski (both of whom became Burbank's spineless cacti fast friends). But the cattle loved it so much that they ate it right down to the ground, leaving the ranchers no better off. Worse, the cactus didn't have enough nutritional content to be good feed.
The world's greatest horticulturalist, Burbank was never a scientist. When he became truly well known, botanists and other researchers visiting him were shocked to learn that he had never heard of Mendel and his plant genetics -- or of genetics at all, for that matter.
This didn't prevent him from making a successful business career, and to give credence to the myth of the self-made man. He was probably a better grafter than anyone alive, then or since. The home and gift shop contain many photographs of Luther Burbank receiving famous people -- Helen Keller, Carrie Jacobs Bond, Thomas Edison, Henry and Edsel Ford, and Harvey Firestone.
The greenhouse These visitors made a great impression on the citizens of Santa Rosa, a struggling agricultural town. Visitors today can enter Burbank's original greenhouse, which weathered the 1906 San Francisco earthquake without losing its glass -- the original glass panels are still in place. In fact, Santa Rosa was the epicenter of that earthquake and much of the town was leveled, although they did not have the fire which destroyed so much of San Francisco.
Toward the end of his life, Burbank, who had been a controversial character throughout his career, caused one more set of headlines. When a reporter asked him about his religion, he replied that he was "an infidel". He spent much of his failing energy trying to explain his philosophy, but died soon after. He is buried in an unmarked grave near the border of the gardens. Surviving him for fifty years, his much younger wife never remarried, but kept his memory alive and willed the family property to the city.
Burbank's burial place Apart from the interesting and little-known story of Luther Burbank, a visit to the home and gardens is an opportunity to consider the efforts of garderners, botanical historians and historical botanists as they develop this property. Since his record-keeping was apparently haphazard, they are forced to rely on the slimmest of evidence as they try to replicate his experiments.
But those experiments! One cherry tree in the garden is said to bear 400 grafted fruit. Today little buds are beginning to grow and perhaps by summer visitors will be able to see some of these results.