Luther Burbank’s Garden

– Posted in: Garden Adventures, Garden Design, Garden Visits, Miscellaneous


Luther Burbank (1849-1926) sent this to my grandmother, an elementary schoolteacher who had her class write letters to the famed horticulturist. Burbank, though childless, enjoyed children—something I learned recently while touring his historic home and gardens in Santa Rosa, CA.

 House (c)

The gardens are planted with numerous flowering and fruiting hybrids that owe their existence to Burbank. Some of the plants he improved are roses, walnuts, chestnuts, grapes, blackberries, pears, peaches, plums, apricots, loquats, cherries, avocados, apples, persimmons, blueberries, penstemons, pomegranates, citrus, olives, locusts, mulberries and lilacs.

Shasta daisies copy

Docents proudly pointed out drifts of white daisies, which resulted from 14 years spent crossing flowers from Europe and Japan. In 1901, when Burbank was satisfied his criteria had been met, he named the new variety after snow-capped Mt. Shasta. 

Lilies (c)

Burbank also worked with lilies. This spectacular one grew near the daisies.

Opuntia (c)

I was pleased to see a 10-foot-tall stand of Opuntia ‘Burbank Spineless’, a cactus he developed as cattle feed. It didn’t go over well with cattle, likely because the pads aren’t entirely spineless.  But it’s a good hedge succulent for gardens in fireprone areas—it gets by on rainfall when established, tolerates frost and searing sun, and won’t draw blood if you back into it. The fleshy pads make an excellent wildfire barrier and are edible (nopales).

artichoke w (c)

Burbank also introduced the giant ‘Santa Rosa’ artichoke, shown here in flower.

greenhouse (c)

Burbank’s greenhouse is on the docent-led tour. A few of his canna crosses are on the right.  

s notes (c)

Can you imagine tracking thousands of hybridizations without a computer?  A cross-hatch # means excellent or noteworthy.

Photo of LB cropped

The tour included the interior of Burbank’s home. This portrait of him was on his writing desk. Perhaps he’s reading a letter from a child.

I’m enjoying “The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants,” by Jane S. Smith (Penguin Press, 2009)—which Copperfield’s Books in Sebastopol (7 miles from Santa Rosa) gave me after my “Designing with Succulents” presentation there last week.  I also visited Gold Ridge Farm, Burbank’s experimental farm in Sebastopol where I saw an apple tree grafted with 60 different varieties. Docent Nancy Windrem—a retired schoolteacher—graciously gave me an impromptu tour, and I’m mailing her a copy of Burbank’s letter to my grandmother.

Visit the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens.

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
13 comments… add one

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lotusleaf July 23, 2009, 5:14 am

What a great man! How much work he did without a computer! I see the cannas he hibridized everywhere here in India.

How wonderful that you live in India and enjoy GGW! Your blog is well worth visiting—I love the photos of all the exotic flowers. Debra

Janet July 23, 2009, 7:42 am

Thanks for the tour. I received the book from one of the bloggers after the Chicago Spring Fling. What a remarkable man.
Yes. I found it interesting that Burbank, though one of the “greats” of his time (he was revered worldwide and a good friend of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford) really struggled to make a living because his new plant introductions couldn’t be patented. And though he fathered wonderful plants, he had no children of his own. Debra

MNGarden July 23, 2009, 7:55 am

I can see you have been exposed to gardening since forever. What a treasure your grandmother’s letter is.
Thanks, Donna. I do think it’s crucial for children to be exposed to the joys of the natural world and to gardening. Otherwise, they’ll never understand the appeal when they’re adults. It’s so enriching. I’ll bet every garden blogger had a grandmother or parent who introduced them to gardening.

Christopher C NC July 23, 2009, 9:05 am

I am currently reading the same book by Jane Smith. Copies were given away by Jane herself at the Chicago Spring Fling for garden bloggers. It certainly would be nice to add a tour of his gardens to reading the book.
Jane is a wonderful writer. She brings to her subject a good handle on the historical context, and her writing is full of insight. Visiting Burbank’s home and garden helped me enjoy the book even more, and vice versa. Debra

Yaacov July 23, 2009, 12:04 pm

I’ve been planting Shasta Daisies on the east coast for over a decade and as an ex ex-Californian can’t believe I never thought of the name’s origin. Will be driving through Santa Rosa in August.

Is it worth stopping by there for half an hour?

You could tour the grounds in half an hour, but it seems a shame not to take a docent-led tour, which takes you through the home and greenhouse. Well worth it. Plan on about an hour to do both. Debra

Michelle D. July 23, 2009, 1:18 pm

I’m ashamed to say that I live less than a half hour south of Burbank’s garden and have never visited it.
Thanks for the tour Debra. Guess I need to schedule a visit to this wonderful place.

Hi, Michelle –They don’t seem to do much to get the word out about it. I was surprised, too, that the gift shop doesn’t carry the new book about him. Btw, thanks so much for the info on gardening in Sonoma County you sent me before my visit! Debra

Susi Torre-Bueno July 23, 2009, 4:10 pm

What a wonderful legacy to have, Debra! It’s hard to appreciate how much important work Burbank did – and all without a computer let alone no internet access!

Thanks, Susi. Burbank was a Plant Whisperer…he talked to his plants, to the occasional discomfiture of guests. Debra

Lisa at Greenbow July 23, 2009, 11:00 pm

I am so glad to get to see a bit of the Burbank Gardens. I just finished reading the book by Jane Smith and was wondering if his gardens were still in existence. It would certainly be a pleasure to tour there. As to not having a computer to keep up with all his work. I just can’t imagine how he did it. His mind must have been computer-like.

He did have a remarkable memory. Burbank knew where every plant was in his test gardens, as well as its defining characteristics and parentage. Debra

Kirsten July 25, 2009, 2:24 pm

Hi, Debra! Nice blog and I’m a little proud to see a local landmark spotlighted in your blog. Thanks for helping to put LB back on the cultural/gardening map.

I manage a local nursery here in Sebastopol, about 10 miles from Burbank’s home and just a few miles from Gold Ridge Experimental Farm. Some of my staff visit the farm regularly, in a reverent manner almost like a pilgrimage (including myself).

Every January we bring in about 10,000 bare root fruit trees, fruit-bearing shrubs and perennials. Burbank developed several varieties that are still in the trade today. I am making it my personal mission to create and develop a “Luther Burbank Collection,” a section of our nursery set aside for plants he developed, with educational signs, salesmanship and appropriate marketing.

I got the idea in a roundabout sort of way. I’ve always been interested in traditional cultivars. This past winter we made our usual trip to the Eco-Farm Conference in Monterey, CA. While there I attended Gary Nabhan’s talk on RAFT, Renewing America’s Traditional Foods project. The accompanying book lists traditional foods for the Salmon Nation (our area), many of which are threatened or endangered. Several tree cultivars are quite local (e.g., Gravenstein and Sierra Beauty apples, Blenheim apricot, Elephant Heart plum) and we are fortunate to carry them. Others were developed by Burbank himself (e.g., French Improved plum).

The book that Debra mentioned has a partial list of Burbank’s other cultivars and we are looking for sources to supply our winter tree inventory. We are excited to bring Burbank back to Sonoma County and to our customers. Many of them are really into this kind of thing and into trying our “new” cultivars, so we anticipate a lot of participation. We’ll probably have a section in our “Fruit trees of Sonoma” class on Burbank specifically.

So there is a resurgence of interest in Burbank and we are actively trying to promote his cultivars. I thought readers might be interested in our efforts.

Hi, Kirsten — Thank you for the info on what Harmony Farm Supply and Nursery is doing to honor Luther Burbank’s name and introductions. I visited your nursery when I was in the area and was impressed by the breadth and quality of the plant material, and your friendly, knowledgeable staff. There is so much in your area that Burbank influenced. It would be interesting to know how many home gardens in the area still have plants that originated with Burbank, and may even be descended from his original hybrids. Some that have been lost to the nursery trade might even be reintroduced. Please keep up your good work! Debra

Tibs July 30, 2009, 6:46 am

I have been an admirer of Burbank since I read about him as a child. He was covered in this series of biographies about famous Americans when they were children. ( I devoured all of these. Informative in a very rosey isn’t America wonderful way). He is no longer talked about in school. My kids had never heard about him. I, of course ,remedied this to much eye rolling on their part. I have his autobiography and would love to get a whole series of books he wrote about his work. If you read his autobiography you might get a little turned off. There were serveral chapters about the benafits of applying his methods on improving people.

I thought the biography that just came out was well researched and interesting, but I wish it would have delved into his personal relationships more. I suppose the author didn’t because she would have had to speculate, and she wasn’t writing historical fiction. Debra

Dee/reddirtramblings August 7, 2009, 10:31 am

Debra, thank you so much for the tour. I am also reading that wonderful book, and I appreciate truly “seeing” Burbank’s gardens. Your letter from him is priceless, and I bet those children and your grandmother were thrilled. About the photo on my blog, please use it anyway you wish. I’m honored. Thanks for asking.~~Dee

Hi, Dee — I wish I had known my grandmother so I could have asked her. Your blog and photos are wonderful, btw. Many of them would make great watercolor subjects. Btw, thank you for tweeting about my Luther Burbank post! Debra

Jain March 30, 2010, 7:52 pm

Wonderful photos. Luther was right. This is a wonderful place to live.
Thanks for the good words about a great man.

Hi, Jain — You’re welcome. Visiting Burbank’s home and garden was an unforgettable experience. — Debra

Bren July 6, 2010, 10:53 pm

This is a wonderful garden share. That greenhouse is to ‘die’ for… I would love to have a structure like that. I wonder what it would cost to heat that in my zone 5b winter.

The lily does remind me of my giants that are blooming this week in my home garden. Thanks for sharing this link.

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