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Luther Burbank, Plums, and CA Horticulture

Luther Burbank, Plums, and CA Horticulture

Various varieties of plums.

Cynthia Houng | Chef's Blade

Imagine a plum. Heavy in the hand, when fresh, and full of juice. Imagine that purple-red skin and, beneath, that amber, slightly translucent flesh, sweet with a hint of acid.

You are, more likely than not, imagining one of Luther Burbank’s creations.

Luther Burbank was a talented horticulturalist who introduced over 700 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and ornamental plants to the market (click here to read a brief list of Burbank’s introductions). Many of his introductions, like the Santa Rosa plum, remain crucial to the California economy.

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Some results of Luther Bubank drawings

Born on March 7, 1847, in Lancaster, Massachussetts, Burbank moved to Santa Rosa in 1875, where he established Gold Ridge Farm. From 1875 until his death in 1926, Burbank lived and worked in Santa Rosa. An exceptionally talented horticulturalist, Burbank found inspiration in Charles Darwin’s writings and believed strongly in empiricism and experimentation.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, California’s economy shifted towards a model of industrial agriculture, and “modern” hybrids, more suited to the grand scale and extended time frame of the industrial style, began replacing the old varietals. A glance at an 1871 list of fruit cultivars offered by Felix Gillet, a nursery located in Nevada City, California, reveals a sea change in growers’ attitudes and preferences. Most of the varieties offered at Gillet’s nursery were of European origin: Green Gage plums, 5 French varieties of peaches (Gross Mignonne, Early Purple, Nivette, Pavie de Pomponne, Red Madeleine), Queen Horteuse cherries from the Netherlands, to name some.