Genius, infidel and Sonoma County’s own
Poppies explode beside Burbank’s Santa Rosa carriage house, now a museum and gift shop.
improvement of plant life.
When Jack London set out to develop his “Beauty Ranch” in the hills of Glen Ellen, it was only natural that he would ask the world’s leading horticulturist to assist. The man he wanted, Luther Burbank, lived and worked less than 20 miles away, and was the kind of visionary who could transform London’s unruly sprawl into an ordered plant laboratory.
A Massachusetts farm boy with a high school education, Luther Burbank was one of 15 children. Born in 1849, he bought 17 acres with inherited money and began to experiment, developing a hybrid potato rich with white flesh and encased by tasty skin, a potato that was larger and easier to cultivate than any potato grown before. It took the self-taught botanist only five years to develop the Burbank Russet, which became the mainstay of the Idaho potato industry and is today favored by McDonald’s for its billions of French fries. Burbank sold the rights to his “invented” potato for $150, bought a ticket on the recently completed transcontinental railroad, and headed for Sonoma County.
Arriving in 1875, Burbank surveyed his surroundings and issued this oft-reprinted declaration: “I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as nature is concerned.”
He promptly purchased a four-acre plot in Santa Rosa, and divided it between a nursery and experimental fields. In 1889, he added a glass-walled greenhouse he designed and built himself, which was shaped like a Quonset hut, 50 years ahead of its time.
Burbank’s plant-breeding methods were influenced by Charles Darwin’s scientific study, “The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication.” Burbank selected seeds and carefully cross-pollinated them by hand, then let natural selection take over while he carefully monitored and recorded the results. He was a scientist with remarkable patience. Burbank’s goal was to benefit mankind by developing fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains which would have the highest yield, be hardy against inclement weather and pests, be pleasant tasting and optimally nutritious. Ultimately, his results increased the world’s food supply by significant measure.
As his work expanded in variety and volume he purchased 18 acres near Sebastopol that he named Gold Ridge. He often drove by horse and buggy between his Santa Rosa garden and his experimental plots at Gold Ridge, and in 1893 he published a catalogue of his most noteworthy new varieties, titled “New Creations in Fruits and Flowers.”
By the turn of the century, funded in part by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, he was widely recognized as the world’s leading horticulturist. Much of his fame was due to his extensive writing, including his 1921, eight-volume, magnum opus, “How Plants Are Trained To Work for Man,” and the posthumous collection of his work, “Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application.”
It was an era of individual accomplishment. What Thomas Edison was to the lightbulb, phonograph, and motion picture, what Henry Ford was to the automobile assembly line, and Wilbur and Orville Wright were to powered flight, Luther Burbank was to the improvement of plant life. In fact, Burbank and many of these giants of invention became friends. A famous 1915 photograph shows Edison, Burbank and Ford casually hunkered on the front step of Burbank’s Santa Rosa home.
Over the course of his lifetime, Burbank created or improved more than 100 plums and prunes, dozens of strains of blackberries, raspberries, cherries, strawberries, peaches—including Elberta and Freestone—grapes, pears, figs, and Burbank wheat. He is credited with creating more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, including a spineless cactus developed for cattle feed that still grows at the Santa Rosa home and garden preserved as a Burbank shrine. Other famous Burbank creations include the Shasta daisy, the Santa Rosa plum and the white blackberry.
Burbank’s first marriage ended in
divorce after six years and in 1916, 66-year-old Luther Burbank married 28-year-old Elizabeth Waters. She shared his love of nature and was well-suited as a helpmate to her husband’s genius, understanding the intense demands of his life’s work. And though the Burbanks never had children, Luther Burbank believed he had insight into their animal natures, too, and in 1907 he authored a book on child rearing titled, The Training of the Human Plant.
In 1925, when young science teacher John Thomas Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in violation of a recently passed Tennessee statute, Burbank was deeply disturbed. The Scopes trial sought to enshrine in law the Biblical assertion that the world and mankind were created in six days. Dissenters, teaching the theory of evolution in state-funded schools, were criminalized. Like many scientists, Burbank regarded the Tennessee law as an attack on scientific truth. Since his work was entirely based on stimulating evolution in plant life, and then allowing heredity and natural selection to change and hopefully improve the species, Burbank was, by definition, an evolutionist himself.
So he wrote an article blasting the anti-evolutionists, chiding, “Those who would legislate against the teaching of evolution should also legislate against gravity, electricity…and prevent the use of the microscope and the spectroscope or any other instrument used for the discovery of truth.” As an advocate of the use of the scientific method, he said, “The scientist is a lover of truth for the very love of truth itself, wherever it may lead.”
Burbank’s scientific mind precluded belief in an afterlife, and he said until its existence could be demonstrated with evidentiary proof, he would not believe. “We must look for survival only in the spirit of the good we have done in passing through,” he insisted. “I believe in the immortality of influence.”
At the same time, however, Burbank was a friend of the famous Indian guru and spiritual teacher, Paramahansa Yogananda, who praised the horticultural wizard in his best-selling Autobiography of a Yogi.
But in a January 22, 1926, interview, Burbank went famously further with his rejection of religion. “I am an infidel,” he told a reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin. The interview made front pages around the world, and Burbank was immediately engulfed in a flood of hate mail, attacking him for this heresy. At its peak, he received as many as 500 angry letters a day. Interspersed in this deluge were a few letters of admiration and congratulation, but the negative attention may have taken a toll, and in March of that year he suffered a heart attack, compounded by gastrointestinal problems. Disheartened by the constant tide of hatred voiced against him, Burbank may have lost the will to fight. He died on April 11, 1926, at the age of 77.
But Luther Burbank refused to go quietly: He took one last shot at his critics in defense of scientific free-thinking. His dying wish was the request that Colorado Judge Ben Lindsey deliver his funeral oration. Lindsey was a political gadfly who famously advocated “trial marriages” as a means to stem the tide of surging divorce rates. In Lindsey’s plan, engaged couples could live together without stigma for at least a year before actually becoming married. That proposal—75 years ago—was perceived as a scandalous attack on the sanctity of marriage, the belief in premarital virginity and the fundamental teachings of almost all religions. The judge’s preference for thinking within the constraints of practical reality instead of cultural dogma made him a symbol of leadership for modernists, scientists, and sociologists, and the radical scourge of traditionalists.
When 10,000 people gathered at Burbank’s outdoor funeral in Santa Rosa’s Doyle Park, the largest such ceremony in the history of Sonoma County, Judge Lindsey stoutly defended Burbank’s beliefs and intellectual independence, and praised him as a man known for “his good deeds, his kindly, simple, sinless life of constructive work and loving service to the whole wide world.” This “miracle worker…is not dead,” the judge proclaimed, “he walks in our midst in his work.”
Burbank was buried in his garden in an unmarked grave at the foot of a favorite cedar tree.
With the passage of the Plant Patent Act in 1930, Luther Burbank was issued 16 plant patents posthumously. In 1986 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Elizabeth Burbank bequeathed their home and gardens to the City of Santa Rosa when she died in 1977, and today, both the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens and Gold Ridge are National Historic Landmarks.
Luther Burbank Home & Gardens are open seven days a week, year round. Tours are available April through October and are free to the public. The Burbank Home, the greenhouse and the Carriage House Museum are open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with docent-led tours every half hour.
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA