Docent-led tours sprout again at Luther Burbank Home & Gardens in Santa Rosa

If you go

Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, 204 Santa Rosa Ave., is open 8 a.m. to dusk Sunday, Monday and Wednesday and 2 p.m. to dusk Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday.

Tours are offered and the carriage house is open 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday (except Mother’s Day, May 30 and Father’s Day). Admission is free, tours are $5.

For more information, call 707-524-5445 or visit

During a recent guided tour of the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens in downtown Santa Rosa, a visitor who lives nearby mentioned he’d driven past the historic landmark countless times, but never stopped.

Docent Carol Skold, who led the tour, could relate. She and her family moved to Santa Rosa in 1967, but she’d never visited until her retirement in 2000, the year she became a volunteer.

“I knew it was here, but I had never been here, which is just ridiculous,” she said.

It may be the classic case of overlooking the beauty in one’s backyard, but volunteers like Skold hope to change that. Although the property is a city park, the nonprofit Luther Burbank Home & Gardens Association, with a dedicated team of some 120 volunteers, hosts tours and events and operates a gift shop and museum in the property’s carriage house.

After a year of restricted access to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, things are slowly — and cautiously — beginning to open at the picturesque downtown attraction near City Hall, at the corner of Santa Rosa and Sonoma avenues. Although pop-up plant sales have been held, last Sunday’s tours were the first since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The gift shop and museum will be closed (and tours won’t be offered) on Mother’s Day, May 30 (Memorial Day weekend) or Father’s Day, busy holidays that typically welcome 500 to 600 people, “mainly because we don’t want huge crowds,” said Skold, who serves as secretary of the board of directors.

Burbank’s modified Greek Revival house doesn’t allow for social distancing and remains closed, but docent-led mini tours of the grounds and specialty gardens are offered on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons, with the carriage house open those days as well.

The efforts pay tribute to the pioneering plant breeder and internationally renowned horticulturist credited with introducing more than 800 new varieties of plants, from flowers, fruits and vegetables to ornamental grasses and grains. Much of his work was done during his 50-year career in Sonoma County.

It was Burbank who, in 1875, declared Sonoma County “the chosen spot of all this earth as far as nature is concerned.”

The Shasta daisy, Santa Rosa plum and spineless cacti are among his celebrated creations. Fans of McDonald’s french fries can thank Burbank; the russet potato used to make them is a genetic variant of his famed Burbank potato.

“People are impressed that some of his varieties are still influential today,” said longtime docent and archivist Rebecca Baker, who, like Skold, shares lively anecdotes and historical facts with the public.

Framed photos on display show Burbank and his wife, Elizabeth, and some of their famous guests: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller, Harvey Firestone and Jack London among them. Today’s visitors come from around the globe. Skold recalled checking the guest book a few years ago to discover signatures from every state except North Dakota and West Virginia, plus 25 foreign countries.

“I’m always amazed that people from Europe come because they know about Mr. Burbank, but the locals don’t know about him,” she said.

More than 10 schools have been named for Burbank, including one in Santa Rosa, plus a local bank and the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in northern Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Rose Parade and Festival celebrates his life and botanical contributions.

Many people, Baker said, “have seen his name all over and think he was a rich guy and thought he owned a bank, which he didn’t.”

Visitors to the home and gardens will learn how Burbank, who didn’t graduate high school but later was awarded several honorarium degrees, left his native Massachusetts for Sonoma County in 1875. In addition to acquiring property in Santa Rosa, he established an experimental farm in Sebastopol, Gold Ridge Farm. (The remaining portion of the farm is maintained by the Western Sonoma County Historical Society and is open to the public). Santa Rosa was his adopted home until his death in 1926 at age 77.

Skold hopes visitors to the Santa Rosa property — designated local, state and national historic landmarks — will take away “the sense of wonder what basically not a terribly educated man was able to accomplish, and the beauty of the place.”

The grounds, vibrant in springtime bloom, attracted visitors last Sunday, including a local family marking two milestones. Angel Pacheco and Edwin Alexis Herrera, both 18, were in their Ridgway High School graduation caps and gowns and Estrella Alee Herrera, 11, and Perla Ruby Herrera, 9, were in fancy white gowns and veils worn for the religious sacrament of first holy communion.

If you go

Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, 204 Santa Rosa Ave., is open 8 a.m. to dusk Sunday, Monday and Wednesday and 2 p.m. to dusk Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday.

Tours are offered and the carriage house is open 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday (except Mother’s Day, May 30 and Father’s Day). Admission is free, tours are $5.

For more information, call 707-524-5445 or visit

Their parents hired professional photographer Lily Villegas of Santa Rosa’s Venus Photography to take portraits at the park. “It’s the best place for the flowers,” Villegas said.

The gardens are especially popular for quinceañera photography celebrating the festive Latina tradition of teenage girls transitioning from childhood to adulthood. “We get a lot of quinceañeras,” Baker said. “The limos show up. That’s probably the most common thing that happens.”

Plus, she said, families take baby photos on the garden lawns and return repeatedly, ending up “with a lifetime of pictures.”

Nicoline Leseigneur, who lives half a block from the property, was taking a walk along the winding brick pathways that circle the gardens and buildings. “I think it’s a beautiful place and such an important place for Santa Rosa,” she said.

First-time visitor Kathleen Ellertson of Cameron Park was enjoying a stroll around the grounds and taking time to read displays about Burbank’s life and work. “It’s just beautiful,” said the high-tech company retiree. “And I love the history.”

Baker said thousands of people a year typically visit the property, including scores of third graders on school field trips. Some people book small weddings, memorials or other private events. Many visitors want to learn more about Burbank’s horticultural methodologies, including grafting, hybridization and crossbreeding.

“He didn’t like to do the same thing twice,” Baker said. “He thought of himself as an inventor.” Burbank was noted for wearing dark suits rather than blue jeans or overalls common to farmers. In 1986, 60 years after his death, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The property, bordered by a white picket fence, features placards throughout the gardens detailing his work: a multi-grafted apple tree (which garden curator Rachel Spaeth maintains) showcases some 50 cultivars. Burbank used grafting, it’s noted, to save space and time, with apples growing and ripening sooner on a bearing tree than a young one or seedling.

Docents share details during tours (and point out the greenhouse Burbank built in 1889), but off-hours visitors can take a free, self-guided cellphone audio tour that includes 28 stops.

Visitors also can challenge themselves to a socially distanced scavenger hunt that was introduced during the pandemic. Thirty numbered photos of Burbank wearing a face mask are hidden around the grounds; those who find more than 20 and list their locations are rewarded with a packet of sunflower seeds hybridized on site by Spaeth.

Additionally, there’s a Little Free Library kiosk on the grounds, offering garden and nature books and seed packets for the taking.

Souvenirs can be purchased in the gift shop (or ordered online). Items include horticulture books written by Burbank, keepsakes made especially for the gift shop, and a T-shirt emblazoned with a large Shasta daisy. “He wanted the biggest, whitest, brightest flower he could create,” Baker said.

Kristen Skold, who works upstairs in the cupola-topped carriage house as the office manager and is Carol Skold’s daughter, is happy to see a return of volunteers and visitors after a long hiatus during the pandemic.

Because mini tours are now offered until the Burbank home can safely open, Skold said docents attended “refresher days” last month to modify their approaches and “change the rhythm” without missing opportunities for storytelling and sharing Burbank’s life and works.

It had been nearly 18 months since the last docent-led tour; Halloween of 2019 was the final one of the tourist season before the pandemic hit. Docents are anxious to return, Skold said. “Docents in particular are very much people-people.”

The volunteers, including a 96-year-old Santa Rosan, work to preserve the home and gardens where Burbank experimented in plant breeding until his death. Friends of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens support that legacy through donations.

The grounds have more weeds than usual, a fallout from the pandemic and stay-at-home mandates that kept volunteer gardeners away. Things are improving, though — and the board of directors, three-person staff and volunteers are ready to resume operations.

Burbank’s place in Sonoma County history is quietly celebrated each day at the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens.

He was buried beneath a towering Cedar of Lebanon tree he’d planted from seed in the front yard, although the tree has since been removed. His grave is unmarked, as Burbank, reportedly a humble man, requested.

“We think of the gardens,” Baker said, “as a living memorial to Mr. Burbank.”

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