This New Years Day, an hour before dusk, I visited the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa for the first time, after passing signage for decades on Highway 101 marking the historical landmark.
Burbank, born in 1849, was a poor boy from a huge family in rural Massachusetts. His father died when he was 21 and Luther used his patrimony to buy his own farm and experiment with horticulture, at which he turned out to be one of the intuitive geniuses in world history.
With the $150 he made from selling the rights to his new Burbank Russet potato, which we are still eating now, Luther moved to Santa Rosa in 1875 and bought land for a small experimental farm which is where his home and Memorial Garden still stands in downtown.
For the next fifty years, Burbank created hundreds of new strains of fruits, potatoes, cacti, and flowers, becoming an admired worldwide celebrity while earning the scorn of professional academics. His Wikipedia entry notes:
"Burbank was criticized by scientists of his day because he did not keep the kind of careful records that are the norm in scientific research and because he was mainly interested in getting results rather than in basic research. Jules Janick, Ph.D., Professor of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Purdue University, writing in the World Book Encyclopedia, 2004 edition, says: "Burbank cannot be considered a scientist in the academic sense."
In 1916, Burbank married his much younger second wife Elizabeth Waters above, and after his death in 1926, she continued living in their home until 1977, commissioning a beautiful, Arts and Crafts Movement style memorial garden in the 1960s from local landscape architect Leland Noel which is featured in the first two photos above.
There is a metal sculpture of a lotus with a sundial in the garden by Harry Dixon (1890-1967) from the same Arts & Crafts movement, and the daily free admission to the gardens, the inexpensive plant sales, and the general vibe is welcoming and lovely.
It's easy to believe the characterization of Burbank by a friend of his, Paramahansa Yogananda, who wrote in his Autobiography of a Yogi:
"His heart was fathomlessly deep, long acquainted with humility, patience, sacrifice. His little home amid the roses was austerely simple; he knew the worthlessness of luxury, the joy of few possessions. The modesty with which he wore his scientific fame repeatedly reminded me of the trees that bend low with the burden of ripening fruits; it is the barren tree that lifts its head high in an empty boast."