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  • Writer's pictureJill

The Plant Wizard

Before we get to the Garden Tour – let me tell you how we ended up at Luther Burbank’s garden today.

As I noted a couple days ago, we are in Berkeley awaiting the birth of our first grandchild. It’s been uncomfortably hot, we’re quarantining to be safe for baby, and last Sunday we had an earthquake here. Today we woke up and instead of sunshine, the sky was dark, and red. Like you would expect to see if you were at the base of an erupting volcano. It felt apocalyptic!

The smoke from the fires in Northern California, had descended on Berkeley, and obscured all the light from the sun. By 11:30, I just couldn’t bear it any longer, and my daughter was resting at her home, so I told Robert – you have to take me to the sun!

We got in the car, and headed to Santa Rosa – for the sole reason that it was an hour north. Surely the sky would have to be clearer there. And it was! It was still overcast, but it did wonders for my outlook to escape the darkness.

On the way there, I did what I normally do when I’m in the passenger seat. I narrated the scenery. My daughters and my husband make fun of me for this – but I’m not a big fan of long periods of silence, and so I just report things that I am seeing, for anyone who is interested. (Generally I’m the only one who is interested.) For example, when we drive down the boulevard near our home (which we do on a daily basis), here’s some things that I have said, “Gosh, that Starbucks just went out of business”… or “look at that fabulous outdoor dining patio”... or “there are more than 10 people waiting outside of Smart and Final to get in!” I find all of these things remarkable enough to report, and sometimes things that I see come in handy later. For instance, I know not to go to that Starbucks, but I might make a reservation at the outdoor patio dining, and I would definitely make sure not to arrive at Smart and Final at that same time the next day to avoid the line. You see? It all has a purpose.

So, today as we exited the freeway (I generally don’t narrate on freeways), and headed for a take out lunch, I started narrating. Lo and behold, as we were driving down a major thoroughfare in Santa Rosa, I read the sign that said Luther Burbank’s House and Garden. If I had been staring straight ahead, as you must when you drive, and not taking in the scenery for my narration, I wouldn’t have noticed this important landmark! But I did! So you see, narrating paid off again, and after lunch we stopped for a tour at Luther Burbank’s residence and garden.

What a treat! It was small enough to take it all in, but large enough to get a real sense of Luther Burbank’s gardening craft, and the variety of his garden experimentation.

In the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, Luther Burbank became known as the “plant wizard” because he spent his life creating new strains of fruit, flower, and vegetable, mostly by hybridizing. He is credited with developing over 800 varieties of plants. He actually became as famous as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford -- for his inventions in horticulture and agricultural science. Many of the famous types of flower, fruit and veg that we currently enjoy are thanks to Luther Burbank’s wizardy. The Russet Potato, the Shasta Daisy, the Plumcot, and the Spineless Cactus are just a few of the species that come from Burbank’s laboratory. (More noted in the video!) Burbank picked Santa Rosa as his residence because he felt the weather was more “ideal for growing” than practically anywhere else you could find, and the greenhouse that he built for his inventions is still on the original property.

Many of the fruits, flowers and vegetables in his Santa Rosa garden are either species that Burbank introduced, or descendants of species that he introduced. But because of the disruption of Covid, the once carefully tended garden has become quite overgrown, with fruits and vegetables ripened on the vine, some having fallen to the ground, others naturally composting into the soil.

This, however, is the happiest ending to the story. As we were passing the raised bed garden which were filled with amaranths, (just planted these in my garden!) I noted the large sign which read Burbank potatoes. Disappointed that I had missed the potato plants which had just been harvested and replaced with the amaranths, I began to walk back to the exit, when Robert stopped me, and said, look down! And there on the brick walkway were 2 perfect potatoes, asking me to take them home!

I’m going to have Burbank potatoes in my garden!

How lucky can you get? We definitely made lemonade out of lemons today – or should I say, we found potatoes in the apocalypse!


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