Luther Burbank House and Gardens, Santa RosaAfter last week’s rushed Cabernet harvest and crush — accomplished just ahead of several back to back Pacific storms — and this weekend’s sodden Mourvedre press, racking and yeast pitching, I was too exhausted to think about grapes — even if a fermented version were to be poured in my glass. Which was fine, because I had an unexpected break. With Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Rosé pressed and in steel tanks and the Cabernet not yet fermenting, I had nothing even vaguely winemakerish to do for a day or two. So I thought I’d take myself off on a little fieldtrip to see one of Sonoma’s famous sons. That would be famed horticulturist, Luther Burbank, who some call the Father of American Agricultural Science. Burbank was born in Massachusetts, but moved, as a young adult, to Santa Rosa, which he declared a veritable Eden:

“I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned.”

Some might quibble and wonder if he ever ventured to Sonoma Valley, but Burbank’s game was vegetables, not wine, so perhaps he scorned our volcanic, fast draining soil and hotter temperatures. Nope, he set up shop in the heart of old Downtown Santa Rosa with a satellite farm out in Sebastapol, both areas with more fertile soil and cooling from the gaps in the Coastal Range which let in the fog.

Once entrenched in the capital of Sonoma County, he started experimenting and cross-breeding plants, creating hundreds and hundreds of fruits, flowers, grains, grasses and vegetables. Inspired by Charles Darwin, his goal was to improve on Mother Nature with faster growing, more disease resistant varieties. Probably his best known development was the Russet Potato or Idaho potato which still accounts for the vast majority of the commercially farmed potatoes today.

I knew a little about Luther Burbank and I guess I had in my mind a sort of Gregor Mendel kind of character, a monkish aesetic patiently cross-breeding his veggies until he got what he was looking for. But as I followed the audio tour, I learned that he brought in various species of African and Australian plants and crossed them with local varieties. Suddenly, the magic was gone. All I could think of was: “John the Baptist and Louis would HATE this guy!” First, he was bringing in potentially invasive non-native plants, then crossing them to create something that wouldn’t be held in check by this environment. And I learned that, as a direct result of Burbank’s work, The Plant Patent Act was passed four years after his death which allowed the patenting of new plants. Shades of Monsanto and their drive to control all the world’s soybeans! Worse yet, Burbank advocated his selective breeding programs on humans. Eugenics! The man was practically a Nazi.

I softened a bit when I heard that Burbank was interested in Eastern Mysticism. In fact, a visiting Indian Swami reported that Burbank talked to his plants. In the midst of an experiment to create a spineless cactus for use as cattle forage, Burbank, according to the swami, would spend an hour or so a day telling his cacti: “Don’t be afraid. You don’t need spines. I will protect you.”

Luther Burbank's spineless cactus, Santa Rosa

I turned the corner and there it was. Burbank's hundred year old spineless cactus.

I know I shouldn’t have, but there was a fallen cactus pear right on the path. I popped it in my purse thinking I would risk the wrath of the Nature Boys to see if they would save the seeds for me.

I caught them the next day, gloating over the success they were having sprouting acorns from our native oaks. Their plan is to grow them in the greenhouse and replant them around the property.

John and Louis at the greenhouse

In fact, they'd just set up a misting system to keep the seedlings moist.

The reaction to Luther Burbank was just as I expected: “Everyone thinks Burbank’s great. But the man brought in INVASIVES.” Clearly Burbank gets no respect from the man who is saving the planet one Salvia at a time. But John did separate the seeds from my purloined cactus fruit and promised to replant them on the property.

Especially since, 100 years after Burbank's meddling, the cactus is now reverting to its natural spiny state. Take that Luther Burbank!

John the Baptist just can’t resist sticking it to the Agribusiness Establishment.

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