American botanist Luther Burbank (1849-1926)

American botanist Luther Burbank (1849-1926) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In wine country, not everything is about wine; at least not for those of us who live here. For us, its 24/7/365; and as a result, we also notice other things besides grape vines and how they’re doing. This story is part of that “noticing.”

I’ve long wondered… well, ever since I moved to California from Maine, why on earth did Luther Burbank cultivate fruitless trees? I just got the beginning answer to my question this past December, much to my surprise. And I had sort of forgotten about it, until just now. I received a reaffirming, as I looked out of my kitchen window to our ornamental cherry tree, lamenting again,… Why oh why fruitless? as the tree is now in full bloom.

First, the man behind wine country’s massive allergies from all of his experimenting, me included, who bred these barren fruit trees. Knowing him first will help with the answer.

Luther Burbank ~ 1849 – 1926

As the thirteenth of fifteen children, Luther Burbank was born on March 7, 1849, in Lancaster, Massachusetts. It’s ironic that Burbank was born for such an important California legacy, during the same year that so many others were searching for their own fame and fortune. As a California implant, he went on to become America’s most famous horticulturist and plant breeder. Known as a kind man, who wanted to help other people, Luther Burbank was very interested in education and donated money to his local school districts.

As accomplished as Burbank was to become, it was only an elementary school education at Lancaster Academy that he received. No doubt, this was simply due to the size of his farming family and how they functioned during the 1800s. Against all odds, Burbank went on to become one of American’s most famous and prolific horticulturist. It’s safe to say that it was his formative years of living on a farm that gave him the kind of experiential learnings he needed, which would then launch him to become one of the most famous botanists of all time. We are all eating fruits and vegetables that Burbank developed for us, mostly created in Green Valley of the Russian River Valley.

Burbank’s father passed away when he was 21 years old, leaving an inheritance. He used that money to purchase a 17-acre plot of land near the center of Lunenburg, Massachusetts. On this property, he developed the Burbank potato, the most widely used potato today. In 1875, at the age of 26, he sold the rights to the Burbank potato for $150, and traveled to Santa Rosa, California looking for a more temperate climate. This was where three of his brothers had already settled in Tomales Bay; no doubt word of the more Mediterranean climate was a huge draw, as well as the fact that he could garden year round. In 1877, he purchased his Santa Rosa 4-acre plot of land at 204 Santa Rosa Avenue, where he would reside for the next 50 years. His property still exists in the heart of Santa Rosa’s downtown district, and is open to the public, where thousands of people visit each year. It’s a credit to the man that people still enjoy his Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, with its gardens still filled with his experimental roses.

Burbank was inspired by Charles Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, Burbank was driven to increase the world’s food supply. He did this by manipulating the characteristics of plants with crossbreeding experiments. He set up a greenhouse, a nursery, and experimental fields in Santa Rosa.

It was 10 years after arriving in California, that Luther Burbank bought the 18-acre Gold Ridge Farm, on Bodega Avenue in Sebastopol, California, in 1885. He was needing more space for his experiments, and this location seemed to be ideal.  At any one time, he was known to have as many as 3,000 experiments underway. He would bicycle from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol, an eight mile journey in one direction, and stay at his farm two to three nights every week. In this country setting, Luther Burbank worked tirelessly from dawn to dusk. He continued to conduct many of his experimental introductions of over 800 varieties of fruits, flowers, vegetables, nut trees, and grains.

So, there you go… A prolific botanist, who also created many fruitless trees as well as those that would bear fruit.

His barren trees were destined to bloom, but not deliver the goods. Why, oh why, I’ve lamented for the last 20+ years. It wasn’t until this spring that I finally realized the benefit. The fruitless pear tree in front of our home, planted by the town of Windsor, becomes glorious each spring with blossoms, as it is right now in full bloom. Then, as they all do, the petals simply fall off and the tree goes on to provide shade.

Until the Robins of Spring Arrive

It was this past December that I finally focused on all of the returning robins, as they flocked into fruitless pear tree. They do this each year, and I always have just thought, “migrating robins…” and I’ve moved on. In and out they’d go in the tree, bobbing and weaving. For the very first time, I slowed down and finally just watched them. It was then that I realized, “they’re cleaning the tree of those tiny little fruit balls (no bigger than a pea) that develop after the petals fall.” That tree provides about a week’s worth of food each winter, and then the robins move up the street, cleaning other trees. It is a food supply, after all.

And today, I got another glimpse into the world of barren trees, as I watched a little gold finch for about 20 minutes working the fruitless cheery tree out back. I provide bird seed in my back yard, but I’ve never noticed this one before. It wasn’t a fluke. It was time consuming and further revealing. There also appear to be seeds that this finch was enjoying, in wine country, in a fruitless tree.

Aha… Mystery solved!