Luther Burbank was to plants what Steve Jobs was to computers. A creative genius who could take a thing and combine it with another thing, and in so doing make the original thing better and even sometimes new.
Luther Burbank, left, and Henry Ford.
At the time of his death, in 1926, Burbank was one of the most famous men in America, certainly the most famous horticulturalist. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller, Jack London, John Muir, and other luminaries of the time visited him at his home and gardens in Santa Rosa, about an hour north of San Francisco, to see him and a few of the wonders he had created such as the spineless cactus.
The spineless cactus was so smooth that Burbank could rub his face against it and not be scraped or stabbed. (Although this is not recommended.) A giant, sprawling example of this plant stands in the backyard of his modest home, a federally designated national landmark. The house where he lived and worked for most of his adult life is in the downtown section of the city. Parking is on the street in the neighborhood where it’s located.
Other notable Burbank creations on view at the site include the famous Burbank rose, Burbank potato, the plumcot or pluot tree—a hybrid of plums and apricots—an apple tree with multiple grafts, and the Shasta daisy.
Shasta daisies in the shade of a plumcot tree.
The daisy derives from Burbank’s boyhood in Pennsylvania. His father scorned the daisy as a mere weed, to be ripped from the ground and gotten rid of. But, like the founder of Apple, the young Burbank thought, well, just because a thing is a certain way, that doesn’t mean it always has to be that way. When he migrated to California, at age 26, in the 1870s, riding across the country on the transcontinental railroad, he set about transforming that scorned weed into a beautiful flower. So he did, and the Shasta daisy was born.
Burbank achieved such transformations by careful pollination of seeds, grafting, and three qualities that every gardener comes to know well: Patience, patience, patience.
Before visiting the Burbank home I read a wonderful 1962 children’s biography, Luther Burbank, Boy Wizard, written beautifully by Olive W. Burt. The book, preserved from my wife’s book collection when she was a girl, added to my understanding of Luther’s story, as did our excellent tour guide Marti.
The tour lasted about 45 minutes. We walked through the gardens, past where Luther is buried, into his farmhouse and kitchen, and the brick and glass greenhouse that survived the 1906 Earthquake. We learned things we would never have learned if we had not taken the tour.
Small in stature, modest and quiet, this extraordinary man spent days and days and years and years—his entire lifetime, really—out of doors, in his gardens, in nature. This, for him, was the best education, especially for young people. In 1907, in a book of his called The Training of the Human Plant, he wrote,
“Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs and mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, 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 his education.”
The gardens are open every day, free of charge, from 8 a.m. to dusk. Tours are available for children, groups, and on a drop-in basis. There is a small gift shop. See the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens website for coming events and more.