In another world Luther Burbank would be forgotten today; only in the most comprehensive county history books might you find mention about him as a wholesale purveyor of novelty seeds and saplings and cactus paddles.
In that same world the residents of the Bay Area would recognize Santa Rosa by name but think of it as a smallish county seat like Martinez, or a place you must pass through to go somewhere else.
Here’s the executive summary of how it turned out instead: In the early 1900s, Burbank became one of the most famous people in America and tourists flocked to Santa Rosa for a look at his celebrated gardens.
There’s lots more to the story, of course. It didn’t happen overnight and followed years of hard work by Burbank to produce a steady stream of new hybrids. While Burbank’s name was always well known to readers of gardening newsletters and farm journals, by the mid-1890s he was increasingly appearing in mainstream newspaper and magazines being described as a “wizard” of plants. And once he started being wizard-ized in those Sunday features, Burbank and Santa Rosa became famous together.
Take a look at the graph below which compares how often Santa Rosa was mentioned in an article about Burbank and how many times he was called a wizard – from 1899 onward, they increase nearly in lockstep.1
That newspapers and magazines dubbed him a “wizard” of horticulture would not have fazed readers at the time because status labels – boss, champ, tycoon, queen, etc. – were often slapped onto important people. Contemporary to Burbank’s years of wizardry, radio pioneer Marconi was routinely described as the “Wireless Wizard.” Since the 1870s Edison had been called the “Wizard of Electricity” or the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” and when he came to California for the 1915 International Exposition the San Francisco Examiner arranged for him to meet Burbank: “We believe that nothing could be more fitting than that the Wizard of the West should extend welcome and greeting to the Wizard of the East on his visit to California” (see “EVERYBODY WANTS A PIECE OF LUTHER BURBANK” for more).
The Wizard-Burbank label was so commonly used it was like a #hashtag on social media today, creating a trail of breadcrumbs for us to track his growing fame. And there certainly was a clamor from the general public for more stories about Burbank. Every new profile of him or article about his latest plants was sure to be reprinted elsewhere; by 1904 newspapers in 35 states had at least one story about him, and frequently more. Also by 1904, over six thousand fans were making the trek to Santa Rosa every year to get a glimpse of the wizard and his garden – much to his dismay.
Two men prepped the groundwork for Burbank’s eventual ascent to celebrity: Edward J. Wickson and Warren Dutton.
In 1881 Dutton – an investor, banker and co-founder of Tomales – had a ranch he called “Roseland” centered on Dutton Ave. (Yes, it’s the same Roseland district and yes, the street was named after him.) He had a notion that Sonoma County could become the prune capitol of the West and asked Burbank if he could produce 20,000 trees in a few months. With Dutton’s backing, Burbank leased a large plot of land next to modern-day Juilliard Park and hired a small army of laborers. By the end of the year he delivered 19,500 saplings ready for planting. A biographer later wrote Dutton called him a “plant wizard” for his amazing accomplishment, and as a result “…Burbank was ‘made’ as a nurseryman as a result of his prune tree exploit. He received a vast amount of favorable publicity, even beyond his home state – the kind of publicity that money will not buy.”2
The bones of the story are true; Burbank really did grow 20,000 trees in less than nine months (the final 500 were delivered a little later). But no evidence can be found of Dutton calling him a wizard or even that the feat received any attention at the time. It seems highly likely it would have been written up in horticultural newsletters at least, but nothing about it can be found in digitized archives today, even within the Sonoma Democrat. Burbank himself only wrote obliquely that the work “fortified a reputation for reliability and resourcefulness.”3
Whether or not the prune project brought him recognition, the Dutton contract gave him a much-needed financial boost; in 1881 his nursery brought in more than $1,000 for the first time. Some of that profit was immediately plowed into large costly ads in the Pacific Rural Press promoting specific seeds and plants he had for sale.
Encyclopedic in its scope, the weekly magazine was a must-read for growers and ranchers throughout the western states. It started mentioning Burbank in articles and in 1884 published his deeply sarcastic essay, “How to Kill Fruit Trees.” (“After several preaching on how to make trees live, I cannot be contented until I have given you the improved method of killing them…”) It was a popular piece which can be found reprinted in mainstream newspapers.
More significant was his introduction to Edward Wickson who held the editor’s desk of “The Rural” for 48 years (he also became dean of UC/Berkeley’s College of Agriculture). Wickson – who we’ll meet again in a moment – became Burbank’s first important booster. He was up here in 1887 and Burbank took him for a buggy ride through Rincon Heights that left the agronomist wonderstruck:
Interest in Burbank and his plants slowly picked up in the late 1880s, including a profile in The American Florist trade journal. An article about his gladiolus from The American Garden magazine was reprinted in many papers. He finally received major national recognition through an 1890 feature in The Rural New Yorker; despite its provincial name, the magazine was read coast to coast as a squishy general-interest “journal for the suburban and country home.” The 700-word article – complete with three illustrations, including a portrait of Burbank – pitched him as a scientific genius: “In this veritable Garden of Eden nothing is impossible, for the science of the masterly gardener has been able to make nature produce any sort of tree or shrub, plant or fruit, almost at will.”
Like other nurserymen, he had a catalog of things for sale to the public – for a few pennies he’d send you something like a graft cutting for a Japanese plum or an Easter Lily bulb. Like the rest of his competitors, he might have shuffled on doing that for the rest of his life, earning a comfortable income. But in 1893 he did something that seemed utterly mad.
This was make-or-break roll of the dice. He was now selling exclusive rights to his hybrids to just a handful of extremely large dealers and betting his reputation was so stellar he could command those prices. His instincts were right, and buyers usually boasted of how much they paid in their ads. As one biographer observed, “The price was the publicity…these companies wanted Burbank to be a wizard so they could sell his magical discoveries.”4
He also mailed New Creations to publications here and abroad. This was another clever gambit; the astronomical price tags made an unstated claim that as a horticulturist he had no peers. Hey, I’m an extremely newsworthy guy, he was saying, and your readers will want to know what I’m doing: “If editors receive a copy it will give me much pleasure to have my work mentioned in a general way, or descriptions given of any or all the new creations…”
And then commenced the wizard year of 1896.
Luther Burbank stepped into the media spotlight at precisely the right time. In the mid-1890s big city newspapers were quickly modernizing formats; gone were pages crammed with long columns of text, unbroken only by display ads and occasional engraved portraits. The new style was more visually appealing, such as the headline above. Photographs were used whenever possible and another thing that set the New Creations brochures apart from others was Burbank’s frequent use of photos. Being able to show readers his plants and fields was another incentive for editors to present stories about him, and it appears Burbank even loaned out the halftone plates from New Creations to make their editorial decision dead simple.
At the same time changes were underway in what Americans were reading and where they found it. That was the golden age of newspaper Sunday supplements, presenting longer articles often written in a more literary style and accompanied with multiple illustrations. Nationwide coffee table magazines were also exploding in popularity, eclipsing the older single interest journals. There any topic was welcome, particularly if it concerned some wonder of the age, such as horseless carriages, modern architecture or x-ray photography. Both the supplements and magazines were fertile ground for writers to hype Burbank’s “Garden of Eden” and those articles were invariably reprinted or excerpted in newspapers around the country.
America was introduced to Burbank the Wizard in an 1896 Sunday feature published by the San Francisco Call.5 (All articles discussed here are transcribed below.) Unlike some of the other writers, this author actually visited Burbank and even toured his Gold Ridge Farm in Sebastopol (although that bit about the town’s “picturesque villas” gives me some pause):
That article centers on a lengthy anecdote about two tourists dropping by and expecting him to give them a garden tour. Mistaking him for a laborer, he played along and told them, “Mr. Burbank is very busy and has given positive orders that he is not to be disturbed, but he will not mind if you look at the flowers.” Later they were chagrined to discover who he was.
Burbank was famously affable with reporters and it’s easy to imagine him amusing her by sketching out such a story, but all the added details and dialog found in the Call article would be considered unethical today. She also lifted a quote from the 1893 New Creations without credit and worse, rewrote it into hick dialect as if Santa Rosans spoke like Jed Clampett’s lesser kin. Asked by a visitor if he knew Burbank, an “old farmer” supposedly said:
Besides his wizardry, Burbank was also christened the “Edison of Plant Life.” That can be traced to the Santa Rosa Republican, which also called him the “Wizard of Horticulture” and “Wizard of Agriculture” in the same article for good measure. Oh, and he was like Shakespeare, too. That article was reprinted on the East Coast and the Edison handle became the runner-up moniker for Burbank.
There are too many wizard articles from that period to discuss them all here, and Burbank’s scrapbooks contain some where the source can’t be identified. But a couple of entries stand out because they run neck and neck for the WTF finish line.
The New York Journal was Hearst’s flagship, so you know off the bat to expect some wacky, sensationalist twist to its Burbank profile. (An adjacent story was headlined, “Mexico Used to Have An Edible Puppy.” Yes, dogs were a food source to the Aztecs but it’s more complex than that.)
The uncredited Journal article was written by someone who clearly had not visited Burbank and appears to not have even done any research, aside from scanning a few other articles for plant names. The writer claimed Burbank had plums 12x the normal size and pears as large as watermelons. On his farm could be seen “80,000 unnamed types of lilies,” including some so small they could only be examined with a microscope.
Burbank surely had a belly laugh over the Journal’s claim he hated money. “He works for purely scientific cause, and refuses to receive wealth or court fame. In fact, he so persistently refuses money for his products that he has come to be looked upon as somewhat of a crank.” Like the other Sunday supplement features, this dreck was reprinted widely.
The other problematic Sunday feature appeared in an 1897 issue of the San Francisco Examiner, another Hearst paper. (Starting to see a pattern here?) This time the article names its writer as Allan L. Benson, who was freelancing at the time and later became the Socialist Party’s candidate for President in 1916.
That story has the usual sort of clueless nonsense, such as describing Burbank wearing the “coarse, homely clothing…of a common laborer” when we all know old Luther never touched a shovel without wearing a proper starched collar, tie, and Edwardian waistcoat. Another major gaffe was claiming young Burbank’s “instructor” had been Louis Agassiz, a zoologist/naturalist who was the most famous science educator in America during the mid-19th century. Burbank actually did know the man when he was growing up but as Agassiz was a creationist who rejected the theory of evolution, his views were antithetical to Burbank.6
But instead of being the usual (real or fantasy) “Garden of Eden” tour, the Examiner’s story hook was that Charles Hinsdale Perkins – founder of the famous Jackson & Perkins nursery which still thrives today – approached Burbank and offered $10,000 if he could create a yellow rose which would survive East Coast winters.
Freelancer Benson tossed in made-up dialog and description of the event, of course, but what irks is the writer framed the article in a worthless comparison to a minor 1850 historical novel by Alexandre Dumas called “The Black Tulip,” where the protagonist was promised lots of money to create…wait for it…a black tulip.
The novel wasn’t even that popular when it was first published, so why Benson kept looping back to mention it throughout the article is a mystery – unless his goal was really to stretch out the word count. In many ways it brings to mind a 12 year-old ineptly trying to fake his way through a writing assignment: “The book Tom Sawyer is about a boy named Tom. It is short for Thomas who was a disciple in the Bible. The same name is spelled Tomas in Spanish…”
Yet despite its wonky writing the Examiner piece has ended up as the most famous of all the “wizard” articles. Why? Because the Press Democrat built an urban legend based on it starting around a century ago – see sidebar.
As the number of Burbank+wizard newspaper articles ballooned after the turn of the century, it seems likely the same pattern was happening with magazines – but we can’t be sure because there’s no digital database or master index of what was being published in magazine world. But the magazine articles we do know about were particularly important to the rise of his fame.
At the dawn of 1905, Luther Burbank was near the pinnacle of his fame. Many tourists who came to San Francisco for a vacation or convention knew Santa Rosa was only an afternoon side-trip away – and a visit with the plant wizard would impress the garden club back home. Travel bureaus expected him to personally conduct group tours of his gardens. And so the multitudes descended upon him like trainloads of locusts.
It was also a time of great personal satisfaction for him; he was awarded a $10,000 annual grant from the prestigious Carnegie Institution, which seemed to vindicate those who believed he was a man of science.
But by the end of the decade the Carnegie board was wringing hands over what they were calling the “Burbank problem,” and the New York Times carved an epitaph for his popular reputation with the headline, “Doubts Cast on Burbank Wizardry.” The story of all that continues in the Burbank Follies series.
How to Kill Fruit Trees.
After several preaching on how to make trees live, I cannot be contented until I have given you the improved method of killing them. The first and most important step is to buy half-dead, sickly, scaly, refuse trees of some honest traveling agent, who, in sweet and mellow tones, will tell you that he is the only person who has a stock of the kind you are looking for, and be sure an get big ones, four years old, if possible. If they have a few boxes ot fruit, all the better; you can sample the fruit, and thus avoid the danger of setting the wrong kind.
The trees will probably be delivered by the aforesaid honest tree agent during some rain storm, when you cannot plant without danger of getting mired, or late in the spring. In either case, expose the roots to the air for a few weeks to harden them, and don’t hurry about planting until the other spring work is done.
Dig an immense hole, say six feet three inches deep…be sure and see that the moon is right before putting the tree in its place. Probably it makes no difference to the moon about the time of digging the aforesaid hole, yet it might be well to be on the safe side…
[…fertilize with green manure…okay to use weeds for ground cover…]
In the fall it will be a pleasant satisfaction to look over the fence at the rank, overgrown trees of your neighbor, and pat yourself on back for your good judgment in following a different plan. LUTHER BURBANK
– Pacific Rural Press, 1884
The Opening Day at Santa Rosa.
As all things were not ready for a session in the afternoon, the convention adjourned until evening. The writer and P. W. Butler of Placer county had the good fortune to receive an invitation from Luther Burbank to ride with him about the town and over the hills. After viewing the improvements in the way of beautiful residences and grounds, imposing business blocks and miles of well-graveled streets, many of which have been secured since the writer last visited Santa Rosa, a ride was taken eastward, passing the delightful group of residences surrounding the picturesque home of Mark L. McDonald, and thence over the hills into Rincon valley. This pretty little valley we skirted on the west, along a road overlooking it from point to point, until we came to the entrance of the property of Capt. Guy E. Grosse. Thence the course turned westward or toward Santa Rosa, but pursued such a winding way around and among the hills that one could not ask for a drive more varied or picturesque. Capt. Grosse has done a wonderful and important work in reclaiming these rocky and brush-clad hills. He has planted groves of chestnuts, avenues and orchards of olives, and acres upon acres of vines, where a short time ago was a waste of rock and rubbish. The chestnuts so far as we saw were still very small but thrifty. The olives had made a splendid growth and the vines made an excellent show. Here and there is left a strip of land oovered with the most beautiful Douglass spruoe, again a clump of Manzanita, and again a bunch of gnarly old scrub oaks. These breaks of wild nature here and there among the planted growths give a most beautiful variety to the landscape. But the crowning beauty of Capt. Grosse’s enterprise does not appear until one comes to the descent upon the west side of the hills, the first sharp rise above the floor of the Santa Rosa valley. The hillside is so steep that the roadway has to turn sharply upon itself again and again to secure a grade upon which vehicles can safely travel. This coursing to and fro upon the face of the hill gives an ever-changing view of the valley, first, perhaps, far southward to the Petaluma district, then directly westward to the Sebastopol country and then northward in the direction of Healdsburg. We never realized before the extent and beauty of Santa Rosa valley proper as dearly as it appeared from the point mentioned; then beyond this were glimpses of the tributary valleys; then one began to search out different features of the landscape; Santa Rosa, with its straight streets, imposing buildings and bowers embowered in green; then the varying hues of orchard and cornfield and vineyard recurring in endless variety as one passes rapidly from one point of view to another. We cannot adequately describe the beauty of the scenes. We do not know whether Capt. Grosse has a name for this hill or not, but we would name it Panorama Hill, for we can think of no other word which will convey any idea of the extent and variety of its outlook, and this is altogether inadequate, as the highest achievement of the artist is but a far approach to nature’s work.
After descending from the hill, we again crossed the turn and visited Mr. Burbank’s Santa Rosa nurseries, a couple of blocks south of the courthouse. Mr. Burbank has now nearly 40 acres in nursery, and such trees as we had time to examine were surely thrifty and excellent. He is propagating olives extensively, but the demand this year has already caught up with his available stock. We saw the trees of the red-flesh Japan plum which we described recently in the Rural. The tree is a much stockier grower than the Kelsey and ripens its wood earlier. Mr. Burbank has a wonderful walnut, evidently a hybrid between the black walnut and the English walnut, a beautiful tree with a characteristic foliage and an apple scent to the leaves which is remarkable. The tree has not fruited yet; but whatever its fruit, it seems destined to be of note as an ornamental tree.
– Pacific Rural Press, November 12 1887
Luther Burbank — an excellent likeness of whom is presented to our readers at Fig. 66, was born on a farm in Lancaster, Worcester County, Mass., on March 7, 1849. He received a liberal education, and in the fall of 1875 — when a little over 26 years old — moved to California and settled at Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, 60 miles north of San Francisco. Having been from his early years a great lover of fruits and flowers, he bought a tract of land, and started in the nursery business. He also began a series of experiments in horticulture, floriculture and pomology, and so deeply interested did he become in these that, about two years ago, he sold the commercial part of his business in order to be in a position to attend more closely to his cherished experiments. He still retains 42 acres, mostly devoted to experimental purposes. Of this area 12 acres of rich, black alluvial soil 16 feet deep are situated in the town of Santa Rosa. Ten acres of sea-sand at Sebastopol, eight miles west of that place, give, he finds, the best results in comparing and testing new plants. The rest of the land is a mixture of sand and clay — mostly sand — which he finds very suitable for testing fruits.
Mr. Burbank writes us that the results of some of his experiments are as surprising to himself as they are likely to be to others; but just at present he is not in a position to make them known. So short a time has elapsed since he disposed of the nursery department and had ample time to devote to his experimental work that but few things are as yet sufficiently well advanced to justify public mention. One of the best of the 26,000 seedling roses which bloomed on his place for the first time in the spring of 1889, is a very fine new evergreen, ever-blooming, pink seedling Tea Rose, a bush of which is shown at Fig. 68. Mr. Burbank is of opinion that this will prove a valuable variety, though it will be some years before it has become fixed.
At Fig. 67 is shown a branch of the red-fleshed Japan plum, Satsuma, grown on his grounds. This with the new Burbank Plum he finds very valuable and popular everywhere. His crosses between the peach and apricot and Japan plums have curious leaves and growths, but are not yet old enough to bear.
After repeated experiments Mr. Burbank had almost concluded that the common garden bean would not cross with the Lima; but at last success crowned his efforts, and he obtained a pod of four beans by fertilizing the old Horticultural pole bean with Lima pollen, though the form and color of the variety were not changed. When the cotyledons appeared, however, from one-third to two-thirds of the upper end of each of the beans bore the markings characteristic of Lima beaus, while the lower parts had the peculiar markings of the Horticultural pole. The edges of the divisions, like those of uncongenial grafts in trees, were rough and serrated. As the plants grew they were naturally watched with great interest. After a week or more, the separation became complete, the upper or Lima parts dropping off, the plants bearing the usual form of horticultural poles.
Among the curiosities in his grounds are white beans which almost invariably produce black ones, and vice versa. From a cross of two varieties of average growth, some produced vines 20 feet or more in height; while others in the same lot, were so dwarfed that all the pods had to grow horizontally, as otherwise they would have pierced the ground. From seed of the Juglans rupestris fertilized with Juglans regia pollen, he has obtained a walnut with sweet-scented leaves a yard long, having a rapid growth surpassing that of any other known variety of walnut. From present indications, it seems quite likely that further developments of Mr. Burbank’s experiments will greatly interest and benefit both the amateur and professional florists, horticulturists and pomologists of the Pacific coast, and not improbably those of the rest of the country also.
– Rural New Yorker, April 12, 1890
The experimental grounds of Luther Burbank, the originator of the Burbank potato, are within a short distance of Sebastopol, and he is engaged in very important work, which will eventually give to horticulturists superior varieties of Japanese fruits and nuts, upon which with olives, gladiolus, etc, he is devoting all his best energies and a large amount of money in trying to produce from the best already known, kinds that are best adapted to California. Burbank will become as famous in horticulture as Edison in electricity, should his health not become broken by overwork.
– Orchard and Farm, April 15, 1890
LUTHER BURBANK, THE WIZARD OF HORTICULTURE.
CALIFORNIA has a world-noted hybridizer in the person of Luther Burbank of Santa Rosa, a man little known on this coast, though hundreds here as elsewhere enjoy the results of his twenty years of devotion to his fascinating art.
Hardly a street-hawker of market produce but oracularly proclaims before our doors the superior merits of the Burbank potato — a variety originated by Mr. Burbank and introduced to farmers by James Gregory of Massachusetts. Then we are all more or less familiar with the extra quality of the Burbank, Wickson, Sweet Botan and Satsuma plums and the delicious honey prune; or have read in Eastern catalogues and horticultural publications glowing descriptions of marvels in hybrid berries sent out from California — the Golden Mayberry, Great American, Primus and Iceberg — all of which are numbered among the “new creations” of Luther Burbank. In fact, the achievements of this scientific specialist in the production of new forms of plant life have made him the wonder of pomologists on two continents. Dr. L. H. Bailey of Cornell University in a recent letter says, “The results of Mr. Burbank’s hybridizations simply astound me,” and Dr. Robert H. Lamborn of New York declares this phenomenal success in plant-crossing to be “the most practical outcome of the Darwinian evolution of thought.” The February number of the American Agriculturist gives an extended account of the life and plant development of this “wizard of horticulture,” and the London Garden takes a lively interest in every new product sent out from the Burbank experimental farm; while a late issue of the Royal Scientific Journal, a Hungarian publication, devotes a sixteen-column article to the “great California plant specialist.”
All this evidence but proves the truth of the old adage that “a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” But now that the name of Luther Burbank is honored in all centers of pomological science, Californians are becoming interested in the quiet man who toils early and late on a gentle slope of the Sonoma foothills, his personality almost lost to his nearest neighbors in the prodigious absorption of work to his hand. He was born of Scotch parents in Lancaster, Mass., March 7, 1849, and was sent to school until he was 18, when he learned wood-carving. Afterward finding this work too confining he went to farming on a small scale in Lunenberg. From earliest boyhood he showed a marked aptness for plant study and experimentation, and before he was 21 had sent out the Burbank potato, which was soon widely known as a standard variety. The climate of New England proving too severe for his choicest plants, he sold out in 1875 and came West to Sonoma County, California, which has since been the field of his astonishing labor.
Though kindly disposed and even conciliatory in manner, Mr. Burbank has no mind to have his time wasted by thoughtless visitors, as the following instance will show: One day in June, when there could be seen from the road two acres of hybrid lilies gloriously abloom and other acres of cross-bred gladioli and cannas, all flaming like torches in rows, two ladies alighted from a carriage before the gate and leisurely walked up the garden path. Their exclamations of delight were heard by a man in a stooping posture over an ailing plant. He arose promptly and came forward, dusting his hands meanwhile on a flaring tropical leaf which he plucked by the way. His clothes were of coarse brown tweed, but with a certain neatness about the neck. There was a straightforward look in the blue eyes that faced the unwelcome visitors, and a barely perceptible smile on the pleasant mouth as he bowed gravely. The foremost lady addressed him with airy condescension: “We have driven out from Santa Rosa to have Mr. Burbank show us his lovely flowers. Do please tell him we are here, so we won’t be kept waiting.”
There was no hint of harshness in the gentle but positive answer: “Mr. Burbank is very busy and has given positive orders that he is not to be disturbed, but he will not mind if you look at the flowers.”
And they did look at them, their hands greedily hovering over the strange, splendid blossoms, but not daring to break off a single one while that imperturbable “gardener” kept close to their side.
“I am sorry not to give you a bouquet,” he said, considerately, “but this is the month when people come from great distances to see the nursery, and so we have orders not to cut the flowers.”
His reticence and evident desire to get back to work had the effect of shortening the call, and the disappointed ladies took their departure, each with one rose, which was cut short-stemmed to spare the buds and handed them at the gate as a sort of peace offering. Nor was their chagrin lessened when the driver, an old resident of the country, remarked a little later:
“You ladies was mighty lucky to run across Mr. Burbank the first thing. Most folks as comes oninvited don’t get so much as a sight o’ him — his hull time is so took up with mixin’ plants.”
That was about the truth of it. This “mixin'” of allied species of vegetable life is unquestionably a slow process, necessitating infinite patience and unhindered time. As these experimental grounds are private property, and the plants not for sale at retail, the curious or idle visitor has no justifiable excuse for coming here. On the other hand, an invited guest is sure to meet with a hospitable reception on the part of the master, whose unaffected cordiality and responsive intelligence make him delightful to meet.
An amusing incident is told of how certain local characters regard Mr. Burbank’s erratic methods of running a nursery. A stranger once got off at the nearest railroad station, and, looking about him inquiringly, finally asked a rural-looking individual if he knew Burbank. The old farmer’s answer was graphic and straight to the point:
“You bet yer life I do. I worked fur him once nigh onto a year. He’s a mighty cur’ous chap — sold out a big nursery that was payin’ well, an’ went to raisin’ acres an’ acres o’ stuff, an’ every summer digs ’em all an’ burns ’em. I wouldn’t give a hundered dollars fur the hull kerboodle.”
The stranger, who happened to be the senior member of a large Eastern floral firm, gravely thanked his informant, and the same day went to the Experiment farm, where he selected a half-dozen plants for which he paid $6000.
The Burbank grounds are in two plats; the one on a level ten acres in suburban Santa Rosa, and the other a foothill plantation eight miles west of this lovely valley city, and just outside the quaint crossroads village of Sebastopol. The latter nursery is a veritable wonder garden, covering the eastern slant of a picturesque hill whose summit is tipped with young redwoods and madrones. The choicest plants are grown here, as the place is sheltered from winds and fogs, and the soil is a rich, sandy loam, with an underground seepage that does away with the need of irrigation even in the driest summer, it is not one nor one hundred variations of a plant that is seen, but many thousands of hybrids, all traceable to the same stock and each having more or less of the characteristics of one or both parents. These combinations have been coaxed into being by the patient manipulation of science and the brooding and nurturing of this wizard hill. All countries seem represented here, and in their successive seasons one sees strange, flaring blossoms from Japan, Asia, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, with line upon line of their unrecognizable crossbred progeny. There are superb improvements in double clematis, myrtles, giant and dwarf callas, a gorgeous canna that puts to shame the famed “Madame Crozy,” acres of lilies in midsummer, all phenomenal in shape, brilliancy and size. Old species have been broken, cross-fertilized, hammered, as it were, out of former shapes by this “horticultural wondersmith” and made to thrive and flower upon a scale so extensive as to suggest magic rather than the sober work of science. Parent defects are lessened or totally obliterated, and the changed forms embody to a degree of perfection all beauty and desirability in the old. When a flower is too ephemeral the master painstakingly sets about replacing tbe flimsy petals with fleshy, polished ones which are proof against wind and sun. It may take years to eradicate one plant habit or create a new one.
Though it is barely spring the ground is warm to the feet and the sun streams like a flood from the unclouded east. Upon every hand is an ineffable landscape — a sweep of plain, oak-islanded in fields of emerald grain, round-backed hills, grassy between clumps of trees or wearing a striped livery of grapevines, green notches in the slopes, where picturesque villas nestle, orchards whitening with blooms, and over all a sympathetic calm and softness in the air which adds an almost human tenderness to the lengthening of the March days. A land of opulent orchards, vineyards and gardens, all growing with homely naturalness and not with the artificial luxuriance noticeable in the irrigated portions of California, where nature has always a “dressed-up” air, or, as dear old Alec Macrab of Mendocino puts it, “Nature in a white shirt!”
Here are acres of hybrid berries at Sebastopol farm with every conceivable variation in appearance and habit. A large percentage of these vines are sure to prove comparatively worthless and so will have to be uprooted and destroyed. Out of thousands of seedlings growing here for purposes of selection only a dozen bear the master’s seal of approval in the form of bits of white rag tied to each cane. In speaking of the painstaking operation of testing so many berries Mr. Burbank says:
“Last summer I found the task too much for me alone, so I had one of my men to help. It needs an educated taste to discriminate between slight differences in flavor and one who makes a business of it must have abstemious habits. I make it a point not to hire a man who uses whisky and tobacco.”
When a plant is proved to be of real value it is sold out to wholesale buyers like John Lewis Childs of Floral Park, New York, the Stark Brothers and A. Blanc & Co. of Philadelphia — old firms who have dealt extensively with the Burbank “creations.” A plant novelty of exceptional merit is never a drug on the market and brings a price ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars, the originator reserving no rights as to its future propagation. The time has arrived in the history of American horticulture when purchasers of specialties in fruits, flowers, ornamental trees and shrubs are aware that Europe is not the only field open to them, as in late years America furnishes a constantly increasing supply of new and valuable plant novelties.
A late achievement of Mr. Burbank’s, in which he shows pardonable pride, is a thornless raspberry — a cross between the Cuthbert and black cap.
“I have been working for seventeen years to get it, and now you can see for yourself,” drawing slowly through his ungloved hand a polished, leafless vine. “There isn’t a pricker on it, and not a particle of rusty down. Last season it had an abundant crop of mulberry-colored berries of fine quality, though not so large-sized as I would like.”
A moment after he called attention to another “new creation,” which was also in high favor. It was a white blackberry — a vigorous bush of the Lawton type, which bears the snowiest clusters ever known to berry cultivators. The entire stock of this superb novelty, consisting of one strong bush and 300 hardy plants from root-cuttings, was recently sold to an Eastern purchaser.
Among the imported foreign varieties is a magnificent giant blackberry from the Himalayan mountains, the balloon berry from Japan, a showy, inflated shell that bursts with the picking, and which Mr. Burbank whimsically designates “a first-class Japanese swindle,” and the Rubus capensis or Stanley berry, brought here from the interior of Africa. ‘This delicious berry was first described by the famous explorer whose name it bears. Its chief characteristic is its profusion of elegant, brocaded leaves, which make it a striking feature of the grounds.
The best of the Burbank hybrids are produced from crossing standard varieties like Cuthbert, Shaffer’s Colossal and Lawton with the wild berries of this coast. In making selection from the latter it was but natural to begin experiments with the handsomest of these native plants, the thimbleberry (R. Nutkanis), salmonberry (R. Spectabilis), and the Rubus ursinus or wild dewberry. What traveler through the Coast Range but has seen whole mountain sides trailed over with riotous thimbleberries, their large, four-lobed leaves of a fresh, tender green and upholding flatwise white, silklike blooms as big as wild roses. These berry slopes, floating their scarlet, button-shaped clusters in mid June, add unspeakable blitheness to young groves of fluttering oaks and maples. But unfortunately all this suggestive loveliness is proved of no avail to the pomologist; this prettiest of our coast berries is obstinate to improvement, resisting in fact the most indefatigable efforts along lines of pollenization and selection.
Nor is the salmonberry much more amenable to the persuasions of culture, though it is one of the most attractive shrubs of our northern sea-line woods, and certainly worthy of cultivation for ornament. In several instances a cross with the salmonberry has produced a fairly good hybrid, but take it all in ail the results have not been satisfactory. It is reserved for the wild blackberry or dewberry to be the pistillate parent of some of the finest of the new berry strains which, in every instance, excel either parent in size, productiveness and flavor. Oddly enough, too, these dewberry hybrids ripen their fruit several weeks earlier than the original plants, the large spicy flowers being followed in an incredibly short time by rich, glossy berries.
Another attractive line of fruit hybrids are several new varieties of standard quinces, the “pineapple quince.” In speaking of the pineapple quince Mr. Burbank said:
“When it was yet in the seed box I noticed its superiority over its 700 brother seedlings. The leaves had a richer green, and were finer cut and more luxuriant. Last year it showed what it could do in bearing. The fruit was perfect, a beautiful varnished yellow with no touch of the disagreeable fuzziness characteristic of the quince. The grain was fine and entirely free from harsh acid and the flavor a delicious blending of quince with pineapple. It got mellow like an apple and could be eaten raw like one or baked and stewed into sauce.”
In the production of variations in plant life, Mr. Burbank does not stop short of a high rank. He admits that the results of some of his experiments are as great a surprise to himself as they are to others, but is positive no limit can be fixed to improvement in vegetable types if there is a persistent patience and the eye trained to note the slightest deviation in variations. NINETTA EAMES.
– San Francisco Call, March 8 1896
WIZARD OF AGRICULTURE
What Shakespeare was to the drama and poetry, Luther Burbank is to the vegetable world. His results are famous in every center of botanical science, not only for their intrinsic value, but for their unusual suggestiveness. Throughout all civilized lands he is known and honored as the “Wizard of Horticulture” and the “Edison of plant life.”
Santa Rosa and the County of Sonoma are better advertised to the world at large by the work which is being quietly carried on by him here than by any other means. He is today recognized by eminent authorities as the greatest scientific horticulturalist of any other age.
– Santa Rosa Republican, June 16 1896 reprinted in Worcester Telegram
THE WIZARD OF THE PLANTS.
WONDERFUL THINGS PRODUCED ON THE MOST SCIENTIFIC FARM IN THE WORLD.
The most remarkable farm in the world is in California. Farm it is called, yet it is unlike any other farm that ever existed. It is a magical, ideal spot, where nature is moulded by man; where plants live in a strange, unnatural way. Here giant oaks are made to grow perfect trees, but smaller than the smallest bush; pears are reared as large as watermelons; the gorgeous lily is trained so that it is produced in miniature, so small that it can scarcely be seen, and the marvelous perfection of its delicate make-up must be found with a microscope.
At this farm art has produced such a wonderful change in nature that all the beauties of the world of agriculture and horticulture are shown side by side, but so enhanced, diversified, corrected and changed that in walking through the grounds one comes upon sights that are never seen except in the mystical land of dreams. And yet all this is produced in a most natural way, and is the working out of the ideas of one man.
This scientific farm has been started near Santa Rosa,Cal., and its founder, Luther W. Burbank, has already earned the title of “Edison of Plant Life.” The marvel of it all is that he works for purely scientific cause, and refuses to receive wealth or court fame. In fact, he so persistently refuses money for his products that he has come to be looked upon as somewhat of a crank.
Burbank abandoned a growing nursery business of $10,000 a year to devote his time and energy to scientific research in the world of agriculture. A believer in the laws of evolution, this wizard of agriculture produces his wonders under the theory that all the world is akin, and that the relation between the species is so intimate that by constant artificial selection, which is one of the many steps in the production of new types, the lines of life forces can be changed. Working out this theory to make it practical, Burbank has broken up the old habits of plants, and by a constant struggle inculcated new traits.
The wizard has produced results to startle the scientific horticulturist and farmer of the world. He plants the seed of a known specimen of plant life. Suppose it is that of a common quince, with which he has made vast experiments. It grows and puts forth its fruit. Science is then called upon. Cross-pollination, hybridization follows, and by constant and faithful work the wizard is rewarded by a new and valuable creation.
There are other creations, the usefulness of which is not so readily recognized. In one part of the great garden there is a perfectly formed lily, less than half an inch in diameter, and another snow-white flower of the same variety three feet in circumference. These specimens bloom side by side, yet neither is like any other in the world, and yet they are both of the variety that are seen in normal size every day.
Another change wrought by this pryer into nature’s mysteries is in the prunes, which he has developed to a giant size, six times as large as those in general use, and from which they were derived. A plum twelve times the size of the parent species has also been created, and pronounced by good judges to be the handsomest in existence.
The primus, a creation evolved from the Siberian raspberry and the California dewberry, is a marvel. For in this hybridization the good qualities of the parent berries are devolved a thousand fold to make a growth of immense size, perfect in taste, symmetrical in form, and in appearance more like a painted bit of fruit than a reality.
The common Delaware plum tree has been developed into a bush three feet high, growing a plum which is indescribably delicious. From this stock, also, has been developed the Shipper plum, so large that two of them will fill a Mason fruit jar.
But it is in the flower kingdom that this modern wizard has produced the new creations that have most amazed the world. He has now in blossom over 80,000 unnamed types of lilies, specimens such as the world knows nothing of, but which are the direct outcome of a type known to the merest schoolboy. These unnamed varieties alone represent a value of quarter of a million dollars. Yet the greater number of them will be destroyed, for destruction follows where the created type is not considered superior to the parent stock.
In this veritable Garden of Eden nothing is impossible, for the science of the masterly gardener has been able to make nature produce any sort of tree or shrub, plant or fruit, almost at will. There is a great plot containing the Japanese iris, in which are thousands of these queenly flowers, no two without distinctive points of difference. Every color revealed by the spectroscope, every combination of hues found in the rainbow arch are here mingled in interminable profusion.
The immense garden is conducted so quietly that no one except the great experts of the plant world understand just what is being done. And yet every fruit, as well as every garden vegetable, grass, grain and flowering plant cultivated in the temperate zone is being experimented with, and in thousands of instances new varieties have been evolved or old ones improved upon.
This scientific experimental farm in its situation alone, is quite as wonderful as the creations almost daily developed. It has every condition of soil and climate best suited to the work of propagating plants. There is a gentle slope toward the east, which permits the full benefit of the morning sun. The soil is light and not overcharged with moisture, but in the understratum are many hidden springs, so that the plot of ground is subirrigated.
Conservative as the Edison of plant life is, the benefit already accruing to the world from his new creations in fruits and flowers is incalculable. A potato of his origination, which bears his name, is eaten by Californian and New Yorker, and forms a part of the diet of the peasant of Ireland and the prince of Italy. His plums, pears, apples, prunes and quinces are carried to every country of the world, while rare flowers which he has produced grow in the parks of kings and others are regarded as treasures in the conservatories of millionaires.
– New York Journal, September 20 1896
TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS FOR A YELLOW ROSE
Cornelius Van Baerle lives again.
In a quaint cottage clad in vines in the outskirts of Santa Rosa resides a man who might well have been the hero of Dumas story “The Black Tulip.” Dumas’ character found his greatest joys and his greatest sorrows clustered about the development of the “grand black tulip,” for which a prize of 100,000 guilders had been offered by the Horticultural Society of Haarlem.
Luther Burbank, California’s great savant, is treading the same path in his efforts to produce a perfect yellow rose of a new variety, the first bud of which will yield him a check for $10,000.
[…much bad prose comparing Burbank to the fictional Van Baerle…]
Luther Burbank is a man whom you might pass without a glance among a crowd of farmers at a county fair. Arrayed in heavy shoes, coarse, homely clothing and a black slouch hat, to the casual observer he looks not unlike any of a thousand farmers who may be seen at any time in the Santa Rosa valley. But if you should catch a glimpse of his clear-cut features and come under the spell of his deep blue eyes your attention would be riveted in a moment. Your first thought would be one of wonderment to know why a man with a face like a philosopher or a college professor should be clad in the garb of a common laborer. If you should speak to him your first sensation of surprise would deepen into utter astonishment. Every intonation, gesture and inflection betokens the student that he is. He seems almost boyish in the diffidence of his manner and the simplicity of his speech. Occasionally he punctuates his epigrammatic sentences with a half-suppressed laugh that lends an additional feature to his peculiar personality.
One cannot talk with Burbank very long without drifting around to the subject of flowers; and then how he will talk! Not that he speaks so rapidly, or that he gives utterance to a great volume of words; but he will tell you in so short a time so many things of which you have never even dreamed about the commonest of plants. And he speaks in such measured sentences, with such exquisite choice of words, that one hesitates to interrupt him even to ask a question. If he were only standing behind the bars of a grated cell one might easily imagine that he were listening to Cornelius Van Baerle in the Buitenhof or in the fortress at Lorvesteln. With a smile playing over his countenance and in a gentle tone he will tell you how red roses may be made to bloom as green a grass, and how the potato has changed through the process of evolution from a small poisonous root to one of the great articles of food.
Such are the characteristics of the man who has undertaken a task the accomplishment of which will place him in the rank of Cornelius Van Baerle and the other great florists of history and romance. A few weeks ago, Charles Hinsdale Perkins, a member of a great firm of New York seedsmen, visited California, and before returning home naturally made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the great wizard of flora. After looking at a number of new varieties of flowers produced by Burbank, Perkins’ eyes lighted up, as if he had suddenly become possessed of a happy thought.
“Burbank,” said he, “here is the greatest opportunity of your life if you care to take it. Back in the East, where it is not always summer as it is here, we have long been awaiting the arrival of a perpetual hybrid yellow rose. Such a rose now exists nowhere in tha world except in tropical or semi-tropical climates. We want a hardy yellow rose of good size and delightful fragrance that will be sufficiently strong to withstand the vigorous climate of the East without being removed to a cellar or a hothouse in the winter. If you will produce such a rose I will give you $10,000 for the first blossom.”
“That’s a bargain,” said Burbank, laconically, and from that moment the perpetual hybrid yellow rose began to take shape in the mind of the man who is to be its father.
Ten thousand dollars for a single rose seems a large price to the uninitiated, but the sum is regarded by Burbank as only fair remuneration for years of toil. In the first place, the fact should be taken into consideration that a perfect yellow rose of the kind required cannot be produced in less than five years. Mr. Burbank will indeed consider himself very fortunate if he should succeed in wresting the secret from nature in that length of time. He believes it more likely that the task will consume ten or fifteen years. And how full will those years be of failures and experiments! Every reader of Dumas’ story remembers how Van Baerle struggled for years to produce the grand black tulip. How carefully he tended the stalk of the flower in the summer and in the autumn laid the bulb away to be divided into suckers in the spring and replanted. Each improvement on the original flower requires a whole season, and at the end of the year the blossom obtained as the result of a whole summer of patient waiting may be found no better than its parent. Years are thus lost in experimenting without securing any substantial results.
[…still more bad prose comparing Burbank to the fictional Van Baerle…]
“The first thing I shall do,” said Mr. Burbank, “will be to try to blend a dark red rose with a white blossom. I will accomplish this blending process by transferring a little of the pollen of the white rose to the red flower. The seedling that I will obtain in the autumn from the combined elements of the two roses will partake slightly of the nature of each, and as a result the flower, that will grow on the bush the next year should be a trifle lighter than the original red rose, and of course a great deal darker than the first white rose.
“Each spring I shall set out all the seedlings of the hybrid plant, adding more of the pollen of some white rose each time. In selecting a new seedling for the experiment of the succeeding year I shall each time select the most promising plant. The bush should be straight, without thorns and covered with leaves of regular shape. Tbe flower should be perfectly double, of large size and possessed of a delightful perfume, All of these points must be taken into con sideration in selecting my seedling.
“The great difficulty is to get a rose to ‘break,’ as we call it. By this I mean to induce the flower to change from the path of its ancestors and show some quality not possessed by them. Of course it is desirable to have the new flower show an improvement over the old, but it is better that retrogression should begin than to have the plant at a standstill. The moment a flower shows a change of any kind it is an indication that the forces outside of nature are at work. With this much accomplished the success of the undertaking is only a question of patience and the intelligent application of the laws governing plant life among other things these laws include the kind of soil needed by the plant; the amount of sunshine required and a thousand and one other details that must be met as they arise.”
All of which looks like a problem as simple as the addition of two and two when you hear Mr. Burbank explain it. But what an infinite number of failures, delays and disappointments are bound up in his words! Think of a man coolly beginning the creation of a new rose, the first blossom of which will require ten or fifteen years of ceaseless toil, with a possibility of failure after all.
The patience required even to begin such a task seems almost Job-like. Yet Burbank was not always patient. On the contrary, he was remarkable in his youth for his impatience. But long years of experience with the inscrutable ways of nature as exemplified in the growth of flowers has made him content to wait for years to see a new petal grow in a rose. So patient has he become that he says he was told a short time ago that if he had lived in Job’s time a new name would have gone down to succeeding generations as the personification of patience.
That patience is a highly desirable attribute of character when combined with certain other mental forces is shown by the fact that Burbank has become wealthy during the last twenty-five years by tending a patch of flowers that never exceeded fifteen acres in extent. Mr. Burbank regards the industry in which he is engaged as merely the concentration of energy into small limits a feat easy of accomplishment if one has the brains. He believes a square rod of land is enough to afford a good livelihood to any one if properly tilled.
“A thousand acres of land are required to support a wild savage,” said Mr. Burbank, “and he does not live on the fat of the land at that. Civilization has taught the farmer how he may exist on a ranch of one or two hundred acres. By concentrating his energy a little more the orchardist is enabled to live in comfort from the proceeds of twenty or thirty acres. The nurseryman goes a step farther and makes as much money as any of the others with five acres of land. By concentrating the native energy of the Indian, who requires a thousand acres of land to support him, my business enables me to live better from the proceeds of a square rod of land.
“While I could live on a patch of land not much larger than a cemetery lot, I prefer to do business on a large scale and make more money. As a result I have under cultivation about fifteen acres of land. I hire men to do all the gardening for me, and I only exercise a general supervision over the business.”
While Burbank has been tending this little patch of land of his in the Santa Rosa valley, he has done more to advance plant life than any other man living. His first achievement was the creation of the Burbank potato, which is now regarded as peerless, from Ireland to the most distant part of any zone in which potatoes may be raised. Most of the best varieties of grapes, plums, pears and peaches are the result ot his genius. Lilies that never gladdened the eye of man before Burbank’s birth now bloom in every land where flowers grow. But roses have ever been his especial pets, as tulips were the favorites of his great prototype.
A few weeks ago he sent a rose to a firm of Philadelphia seedsmen for which he received $500. Seven years were required to perfect the rose; but he persevered until success crowned his efforts.
As a result, of all these years of ceaseless toll and brilliant achievements, the name of Burbank is known wherever men live who admire flowers. No better evidence of his great fame was ever shown than during the World’s Fair, when he addressed a number of assemblages of horticulturists. Audiences that were cold and clammy when most speakers had the floor became wildly enthusiastic when the name of Burbank was announced. And men whose conservatories are in Italy or on the banks of the Nile recognized the name as quickly as his own countrymen and cheered as loudly.
If further proof of Burbank’s fame were needed, the basketfull of letters he receives every day would supply the evidence. Letters of all kinds come from all kinds of people, representing every land under the sun. One correspondent wants to know, perhaps, the kind of wheat that will grow best on the steppes of Russia, while another inquires the name of the cereal best suited to the soil and climate of Southern Africa. Mr. Burbank says he would like to answer all of these letters, but they come in bundles so large that he is already two years behind in the work.
Such is the story of the quiet little man of Santa Rosa, at whose voice all the world listens when he speaks of flowers. The place he occupies in the business of the world is unique, inasmuch as he has no competitor worthy of the name of a rival. From whence he obtained the wonderful knowledge of Nature’s laws that enables him to create new flowers and improve old ones is a mystery. Certainly he did not obtain the secret from Agassiz, his instructor, for there is no proof that Agassiz himself possessed the power to the remarkable degree shown by Burbank. When he was a school boy in Massachusetts he gave no signs of budding genius of an unusual order and a dreary routine of professional life was selected for him by his parents, as best adapted to his capabilities. But if a solution of the mystery of his wonderful genius were necessary, a remark made by his mother, now strong of mind and body at eighty-four, might prove to be the key:
“My boy came from a race of inventors,” she said. “His ancestors were all of as original turn of mind.” ALLAN L. BENSON.
– San Francisco Examiner, January 31 1897