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Gardener’s house, yard a plum spot

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Among the more than 800 plant varieties Luther Burbank introduced to the world were a faster-growing hardwood tree and a cactus with practically no needles.

His "paradox" walnut tree was a cross between a California black walnut and Persian walnut. Its hardwood can result in beautiful furniture, though the fact it needs to be air-dried rather than kiln-dried, a much-faster procedure, hurts its market value.

His spineless cactus was sold throughout the world, including to many Australian ranchers, as a food source for cattle. Turns out cows liked the plant so much they would eat it to the ground. Unlike grass, it could not grow back quickly.

"Once again, it turned out to be better in concept than in reality," said Cynthia Nestle, a docent at the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens. The tour she led made clear, however, that the longtime horticulturist made many significant contributions in his field and was just plum good at developing new fruits and flowers.

Some 25 of Burbank's plants are cultivated at the gardens, free to the public and open all year. For a small fee, visitors from April through October can receive a tour of the 1.6-acre site and enter the house that Burbank bought along with the property after he came to Santa Rosa from his native Massachusetts in 1875.

"I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this Earth as far as nature is concerned," he wrote to his family. Soon, his mother and sister moved in with Burbank on what was then a 4-acre experimental farm. During his half-century of work in California, he also owned and oversaw an 18-acre farm in nearby Sebastopol.

The 1893 publication of his catalog "New Creations in Fruits and Flowers" brought him worldwide fame. One of his greatest achievements occurred in 1901 when, after 17 years and 34 generations of breeding, Burbank unveiled the Shasta daisy.

Four varieties of daisies were used to develop the Shasta, Nestle said. The result was a long-stemmed plant with pure-white petals around a yellow core. The Shasta remains a favorite with gardeners.

More than 100 of the plants Burbank developed involved plums or prunes. Many in the industry believe his work with plums represents his most significant contribution to California agriculture.

The Santa Rosa plum is one of Burbank's other creations, as are the Burbank potato, the Burbank cherry and the drought-resistant Burbank crimson California poppy. "I shall be content if because of me there shall be better fruits and fairer flowers," he once said.

Burbank lived in his lovely house until moving across the street to a larger structure, where he lived until his death in 1926. That large house was torn down in the 1960s for other development.

What helps make the surviving house special, and gives it most of its character, is that Burbank's widow lived in it from a year after his death until 1977.

Elizabeth Waters was 29, to Burbank's 67, when they married in 1916. She never remarried. During her 50 years in the Burbank house, which along with the grounds she willed to the city, she brightened up the place by adding windows and doors. Burbank assuredly retains a presence in the house. One of the sitting room's walls is loaded with pictures of the horticulturist and many significant figures of his day. One photograph shows him standing in a garden with Helen Keller, and another has him seated on a porch between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

In the only other downstairs room and the last one accessible to the public is a guest book. One of the latter's entries is from Jack London, who expresses envy of his host by writing: "I'd rather do what you are doing than be Roosevelt, Rockefeller, King Edward and the kaiser rolled into one."

Burbank is buried under the lawn outside the house. His grave is unmarked, though for years a cedar of Lebanon tree shaded it. Root disease forced the tree to be removed in 1989, but one of its "descendants" is growing at the gardens' entrance.

As a final anecdote, Nestle — a volunteer docent for six years — recounted an exchange Burbank had on the only occasion he revisited his home state after moving out West.

"If you were in Massachusetts today, what would you raise?" the man sometimes referred to as the "Plant Wizard" was asked.

"I would raise enough money to go back to California," Burbank responded.

Nestle pointed out that Burbank disliked his nickname because it implied some sort of magic was involved. Long hours, hard work and creativity were the primary forces behind his success. Did he have any hobbies?

"Well, he liked children a lot," Nestle said. Indeed, inside the gardens' gift shop is a photograph of an elderly Burbank doing a precarious handstand for a group of youngsters. The store also contains a book Nestle recommends for anyone interested in learning more about the man: "A Gardener Touched With Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank," by Peter Dreyer.