Rethink your itinerary if you are visiting Sonoma and make time to stop by the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens for a breath of fresh air, some fascinating history and the perfect botanical backdrop for a family photo shoot.
It’s likely you never heard of Luther Burbank, despite the fact that Luther surely made your life a little (possibly a lot) better.
I was woefully ignorant about this slice of history before I visited the Luther Burbank Homes and Garden in Santa Rosa. But I’m so glad I stopped. I was genuinely touched by the rich yet humble legacy left behind by this one man, whose benevolent spirit I could have sworn is still hanging out in the greenhouse.
Thanks to Visit Santa Rosa for introducing me to this heroic and creative American botanical inventor and hosting me in Santa Rosa.
If you grew up in the USA you probably never stopped to think where Shasta Daisies and Russet Potatoes came from. Hint: they were not always available at the supermarket.
100 years ago botanists were beginning to make great strides towards breeding heartier, healthier and more disease resistant plants. One scientist in particular, was known as the Wizard of Horticulture. That was Luther Burbank. Born on the east coast, he sold his first plant (the Burbank Potato) to raise the money to move to Santa Rosa, California.
There he purchased a modest swathe of land and went on to develop over 800 plant species – improving all sorts of fruits and vegetables and flowers as well. He is probably most famous for Russet Burbank Potatoes. Russets – still the most common potato we eat today, are particularly disease resistant. They saved lives and offered hope when potato blight wiped out crops across Europe.
Spineless roses and thornless cacti, white raspberries and many varieties of apples, plums and cherries are other hybrids we can thank Luther for. Luther was also famous for his writing and opinions. He is credited with many great quotes including this one:
Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb. Brooks to wade, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.
Sadly we have little information to pour over from Luther when it comes to the hybridization work he did. Luther was notoriously secretive and put little about his hybridization efforts into writing. With his passing, a great deal of his work was lost.
Yet, almost a hundred years later his presence is still strongly felt in our diets and our gardens.
Luther’s lingering presence is felt especially strongly in his own garden where the roses he created are still in bloom today, blushing in the golden hour.
It’s such a treat that you can still visit the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa, and get a glimpse of what Luther and his wife Elizabeth’s daily lives here at the beginning of the 20th century were like. There are many paintings and photos, including photos of Luther Burbank with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who were two of his more famous peers.
Much of the house, where his much younger widow lived till she passed away in 1977, is just as it was in his lifetime. Look sharp and you will see the colored glass as well as many tiles that Luther’s wife collected, scattered about and incorporated in the masonry.
Out in the greenhouse, you can still sense his presence, even if you are not particularly psychic. Luther was buried nearby, under a beloved tree that is no longer on the property.
This lovely home and garden makes a great stop if you are visiting with kids. Even if your kids are not particularly enthused by botany, there is room to stretch your legs and run around, and the museum frequently hosts activities (such as birdhouse building) for children. Visit the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens website for more information and schedules.
If you are looking for a lush backdrop to shoot some family photos, the gardens are perfect as well. Bring a camera, and wait for the golden hour. That’s when I could have sworn I sensed him, Luther and his wife, hovering over the garden like pollen floating in a sunbeam.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see them too.