Chances are you rarely, if ever, think about Luther Burbank when you eat a baked potato. You’re too caught up in savoring the crisp golden skin on the outside, and the pure white, fluffy texture on the inside. If your baked potato looks like mine, it’s topped with a dollop of sour cream, some grated white cheddar cheese, and a sprinkling of chives.
It never occurred to me either to think about Burbank. Now, though, when I’m about to enjoy the sublime taste of a perfectly baked and dressed potato, I send a silent word of thanks to him for helping to make it possible. My new potato-eating ritual stems from my recent visit to the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens in Santa Rosa, CA.
Born in Massachusetts, Burbank was a world-renowned, hugely prolific and innovative horticulturist in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. One of his goals was to increase the world’s food supply by manipulating the characteristics of plants. He was largely responsible for turning plant breeding into a modern science.
It’s been difficult to trace and document Burbank’s developments. During his lifetime, there was no plant patent law, and he often sold plants to the trade without names. Experts estimate, however, that he introduced some 800 new varieties of plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and ornamental flowers. He was behind the Shasta daisy, Santa Rosa plum, elephant garlic, plumcot, Burbank crimson California poppy, Goldridge apple, black giant cherry, and a spineless cactus for cattle.
It began, though, with the humble spud.
He developed the Burbank potato, which produced two to three times more tubers from a single seedling and of a larger size than ordinary potatoes. A later variant, the Russet Burbank, fostered today’s famous Idaho baker.
During my private tour with Kristen Skold, office manager of the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, I learned that Burbank sold most of his Burbank seed potatoes to a grower in Massachusetts for $150, and used the proceeds to move to California. He settled in Santa Rosa in 1875. Upon his arrival, he noted, “I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned.”
Prophetic words, given his profession.
He eventually bought a modified Greek Revival house on a four-acre property (now abut 1.6 acres), where he lived from 1884-1906. He designed and built a green house and gardens for experimenting with plants, and cultivated a farm in nearby Sebastopol. Burbank also built a Craftsman style house in Santa Rosa, where he and his wife, Elizabeth, lived until he died in 1926.
Elizabeth then moved into the original home. When she died in 1977, she bequeathed the property to the city of Santa Rosa. The nonprofit Luther Burbank Home & Gardens Association runs the site, now a registered national, state, and city historic landmark, and operates seasonal, docent-led tours of the buildings. The gardens are open year-round.
Skold walked me through the downstairs rooms of the house. Most of the furnishings, like Luther’s paintings of poppies and Elizabeth’s collection of tiles and stained glass, are original to the family. The stove and ice box are true to the period the house was active.
I felt quite serene strolling though the gardens, which included beds for roses, medicinal herbs, edible plants, ornamental grasses, and wildlife habitats. A 50-foot-long pictorial exhibit chronicles Burbank’s life and work and the property’s history. I read that Burbank was buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds. The central garden is a memorial park featuring plants, wood, stone, water, and a bronze sculpture of a lotus flower with a sundial in its center. The space helps reflect his sentiment:
“The urge to beauty, and the need for beautiful and gracious and lovely things in life is as vital a need as the urge for bread.”