Did Luther Burbank plant at the Sonoma Developmental Center?

It seems logical now when you think about it, but who knew there could be a link between celebrated horticultural authority Luther Burbank and our own Sonoma Developmental Center?

Several months ago, an enormous 0ak blew over on the Sonoma Developmental Center grounds on the lawn area near Oak Lodge. An arborist was brought in to dismantle and remove the colossal tree. The arborist, Alex Thomas, owner and operator of City Tree Services in Oakland, and who happens to be a woodworker and amateur history buff, examined the fallen tree and was convinced that this tree was not a white oak, the typical oak of this region. Instead, the tree appeared to be a hybrid of some sort.

Hybridizing is what Luther Burbank is renowned for, and Thomas alerted the Glen Ellen Historical Society of a possible link between the famed hybridizer and our own Sonoma Developmental Center.

Burbank came from Massachusetts in 1875 to Santa Rosa, and developed plants including the sweet Shasta daisy, Flaming Gold nectarines, a free-stone peach and white blackberries. He even helped, with his friend Jack London up on Beauty Ranch, develop a spineless cactus to be used for cattle-feed, the descendants of which we see today in a small enclosure at the entrance of the Jack London State Historic Park just past the parking lot.

Then there’s the Russet potato. The Russet Burbank potato, the large, brown-skinned, white-fleshed, blight-resistant potato for sale at this moment at Glen Ellen Village Market, was originally developed by Burbank to counter the Great Irish Potato Famine. Burbank’s Russet has become the world's prevalent potato for french fries, baked potatoes and mashed potatoes.

Around this time when Burbank was hybridizing in Santa Rosa, Dr. W.J.G. Dawson was the Sonoma State Home Superintendent (1902 – 1918). Dawson also became friends with Burbank and was an honorary member of the Luther Burbank Society. So it is entirely possible, and surmised by many, that Burbank used the fairly new campus grounds as a testing site for planting his hybrid plants.

Of interest to Burbank was the depletion of forests at that time, and he set out to develop a Black walnut hybrid called Paradox which might provide a solution. There is a small Black walnut orchard behind the chicken barns. Could these possibly be Burbank’s Paradox?

Alex the Arborist says you can only find out for certain by studying the cambium layer of the bark or the walnuts themselves. So, he has provided a botanist friend with cambria and nuts to investigate the heritages of these trees.

Other species, such as the many enormous magnolias, some huge hawthorn and catalpa trees thriving around the beautiful old Administrator’s “Sonoma House,” are possibly Burbank hybrids too.

Although far from validated, this concept is certainly within the realm of stimulating discoveries. Good for the Glen Ellen Historical Society for chasing down this hunch.

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