During a recent guided tour of the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens in downtown Santa Rosa, a visitor who lives nearby mentioned he’d driven past the historic landmark countless times, but never stopped.
Docent Carol Skold, who led the tour, could relate. She and her family moved to Santa Rosa in 1967, but she’d never visited until her retirement in 2000, the year she became a volunteer.
“I knew it was here, but I had never been here, which is just ridiculous,” she said.
It may be the classic case of overlooking the beauty in one’s backyard, but volunteers like Skold hope to change that. Although the property is a city park, the nonprofit Luther Burbank Home & Gardens Association, with a dedicated team of some 120 volunteers, hosts tours and events and operates a gift shop and museum in the property’s carriage house.
After a year of restricted access to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, things are slowly — and cautiously — beginning to open at the picturesque downtown attraction near City Hall, at the corner of Santa Rosa and Sonoma avenues. Although pop-up plant sales have been held, last Sunday’s tours were the first since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The gift shop and museum will be closed (and tours won’t be offered) on Mother’s Day, May 30 (Memorial Day weekend) or Father’s Day, busy holidays that typically welcome 500 to 600 people, “mainly because we don’t want huge crowds,” said Skold, who serves as secretary of the board of directors.
Burbank’s modified Greek Revival house doesn’t allow for social distancing and remains closed, but docent-led mini tours of the grounds and specialty gardens are offered on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons, with the carriage house open those days as well.
The efforts pay tribute to the pioneering plant breeder and internationally renowned horticulturist credited with introducing more than 800 new varieties of plants, from flowers, fruits and vegetables to ornamental grasses and grains. Much of his work was done during his 50-year career in Sonoma County.
It was Burbank who, in 1875, declared Sonoma County “the chosen spot of all this earth as far as nature is concerned.”
The Shasta daisy, Santa Rosa plum and spineless cacti are among his celebrated creations. Fans of McDonald’s french fries can thank Burbank; the russet potato used to make them is a genetic variant of his famed Burbank potato.
“People are impressed that some of his varieties are still influential today,” said longtime docent and archivist Rebecca Baker, who, like Skold, shares lively anecdotes and historical facts with the public.
Framed photos on display show Burbank and his wife, Elizabeth, and some of their famous guests: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller, Harvey Firestone and Jack London among them. Today’s visitors come from around the globe. Skold recalled checking the guest book a few years ago to discover signatures from every state except North Dakota and West Virginia, plus 25 foreign countries.
“I’m always amazed that people from Europe come because they know about Mr. Burbank, but the locals don’t know about him,” she said.
More than 10 schools have been named for Burbank, including one in Santa Rosa, plus a local bank and the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in northern Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Rose Parade and Festival celebrates his life and botanical contributions.
Many people, Baker said, “have seen his name all over and think he was a rich guy and thought he owned a bank, which he didn’t.”
Visitors to the home and gardens will learn how Burbank, who didn’t graduate high school but later was awarded several honorarium degrees, left his native Massachusetts for Sonoma County in 1875. In addition to acquiring property in Santa Rosa, he established an experimental farm in Sebastopol, Gold Ridge Farm. (The remaining portion of the farm is maintained by the Western Sonoma County Historical Society and is open to the public). Santa Rosa was his adopted home until his death in 1926 at age 77.
Skold hopes visitors to the Santa Rosa property — designated local, state and national historic landmarks — will take away “the sense of wonder what basically not a terribly educated man was able to accomplish, and the beauty of the place.”
The grounds, vibrant in springtime bloom, attracted visitors last Sunday, including a local family marking two milestones. Angel Pacheco and Edwin Alexis Herrera, both 18, were in their Ridgway High School graduation caps and gowns and Estrella Alee Herrera, 11, and Perla Ruby Herrera, 9, were in fancy white gowns and veils worn for the religious sacrament of first holy communion.