Califonia Bountiful

Santa Rosa center honors Burbank's revolution in plant breeding

Luther Burbank had only an elementary school education but become one of history's most inventive and productive plant breeders.

Luther Burbank had only an elementary school education but become one of history's most inventive and productive plant breeders.

At the tender age of 21, Burbank purchased a 17-acre plot of land and began conducting as many at 3,000 experiments, sometimes all at the same time. Burbank painstakingly crossbred foreign and native species of plants, cultivated the resultant seedlings and used grafting to arrive at new and better breeds. Of the tens of thousands of varieties he attempted, thousands were successful, including the famous Shasta Daisy. More than 100 years after their invention, Burbank's July Elberta peach, Santa Rosa plum and Flaming Gold nectarine are still on the market. But his greatest success was the Russet Burbank potato, better known as the Idaho potato. This was soon exported to help Ireland recover from the devastating potato blight of 1840-60. And even today, despite all the horticulturists who have followed in his footsteps, Burbank's large, hardy potato is unsurpassed and remains a staple of American agriculture.

During a lifetime devoted to plant breeding, Luther Burbank developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, including 113 varieties of plums and prunes, 10 varieties of berries, 50 varieties of lilies and the freestone peach.

Today Luther is remembered in his adopted hometown of Santa Rosa. He was born in the Midwest, moved to Santa Rosa in his younger days and conducted many of his experiments there. Hundreds of docents work at the Luther Burbank Home and Garden Center in the middle of town and continue to remember the man behind the kiwifruit and elephant garlic with fondness and reverence.

"His intention was to make this a better place, to make things more enjoyable for people, to taste better, smell better, look better and so on," Richard Russ, a docent at the center, said.

More than 75,000 visitors come every year to the center to find out about the legend behind Luther Burbank and all the fruits and vegetables he created. They also travel out to his experimental farm in nearby Sebastopol, where they can see the largest collection of Shasta daisies in the country. The flower was one of Luther's biggest passions; he spent nearly 17 years creating it, all the while conducting literally thousands of experiments that shaped the way people thought about food.

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