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Luther Burbank’s Experiment Farm Becomes A Botanical Garden

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Luther Burbank’s Experiment Farm Becomes A Botanical Garden

by Erin Sheffield

The volunteers at Luther Burbank’s Experiment Farm have added a new feature to a local treasure. Now all the plants at Gold Ridge Farm are marked with their own engraved signs, listing the common name and scientific name in Latin.  This brings the Farm into the same category as the U.C. Berkeley and San Francisco Botanical Gardens.

Previously, the plants were marked with aluminum numbers on wooden posts, and the visitor had to look in the self-guided tour brochure to find the name.  The squirrels had chewed the signs to sharpen their teeth, and the wooden posts had rotted.  Thanks to a generous grant from The Rotary Club of Sebastopol and consultation by Professor Richard Whitkus from the Biology Department at Sonoma State, guests can immediately identify what they are looking at.

“This will be a great teaching tool for children to learn the names of plants,” says farm volunteer Patty Levenberg. “Also, it will introduce students to the Linnaean system of classifying plants and animals.  The scientific names are in Latin so that Luther Burbank’s creation, the Shasta Daisy, is Leucanthemum x superbum in Moscow as well as in Minneapolis.  It was a lot of hard work, and this project took 3 years to come to fruition”Luther Burbank’s Experiment Farm - Blushing Beauty rose

Most plant signs also have numbers on them. Those numbers refer the reader to the revised self-guided brochure with information about the item. These are reserved for the specimens that have been identified as associated with Luther Burbank (1849-1926).  He is credited with introducing more that 800 new varieties of fruit and nut trees, flowers, vegetables, ornamental shrubs,Luther Burbank’s Experiment Farm - Blushing Beauty rose grains, and even the common baking potato.  He imported some examples, like the Trifoliate Orange from China.  Hearing that it was hardy to 15 degrees below zero F, Burbank hoped to cross it with an eating orange to make the new fruit able to thrive in cold climates.  Had he succeeded, we might be now surrounded by orange groves instead of vineyards! 

Hard work and persistence were usually required for Burbank to coax plants to be more beautiful or useful.  The Shasta Daisy, the city flower of Sebastopol, is the prime example.  Looking at a weed in his native Massachusetts, he imagined the flower bigger and whiter and the stems longer.  It took him 17 years of selective crossbreeding of four different daisies from three continents to introduce the Shasta.  It has since become the flower that has the longest history of continuous popularity of any American hybrid garden flower.  Breeders have developed many new varieties with different shape flowers since it first appeared in 1901.  Many can be seen in bloom at the Farm and at Luther Burbank Home & Gardens in Santa Rosa from June through August.

We can thank good luck and Burbank’s curiosity for our French fries.  While a young man back in Massachusetts, he ran a truck farm to support himself, his sister and his widowed mother.  One of his crops was the Early Rose Potato, one that we would use for boiling.  He noticed that one plant had produced a stem and on top of the stem was a seed ball.  He wanted to wait until the pod was ripe before planting the seeds to see what would come up.  The story is that when he went to check, the seed ball was missing from its stalk!  He had never seen a potato produce seeds, so this was a rare opportunity slipping out of his grasp.  He frantically got down on his hands and knees, sifting through the dirt, and finally found his prize.  From the 23 seeds he planted, two produced potatoes different from the parent plant, and one of these was obviously superior.  It had higher starch content so that it survived storage and shipping longer than any other potato, and offered more nutrition per pound.  Since improved, the Russet Burbank is the most widely grown potato today.  www.wschsgrf.org