California AHGP - New California - Chapter XIV



No history of the California of the new time would be complete without more than a passing reference to the achievements of modern horticulture, led by Luther Burbank, known everywhere as the wizard of the vegetable world. A California correspondent of an eastern publication put the case right when he said:

"Luther Burbank is the most famous citizen of California. This is not saying that he is famous in California, for to say that would not be strictly true. Everybody has heard of the Burbank potato, and millions have eaten that product of this man's genius, but that is all they know about it. Those who know that the best potato in the world bears the name of the man who produced it are content to let their knowledge rest there. They do not know, and probably they do not care to know, that Luther Burbank has improved nearly all the varieties of the chief horticultural products of California--that he is wise in the production of valuable hybrids and combinations, and that he is constantly experimenting for the production of things that will please and benefit his fellow man. Luther Burbank is little known in his own parish, but abroad he is honored as a benefactor and reverenced as a supreme authority in the work that he is doing. Thus is the prophet not without honor, save in his own country."

Despite the fact that there is much truth in the writer's conclusions, Luther Burbank's work has had a far-reaching effect throughout California and the west, and his example has encouraged many undertakings of wide importance. Much of the enthusiasm of horticulturists today owes its origin to the fact that Burbank lives in California and here works his miracles with the forces of nature; that in this genial home of growing things he is freed from the rigors of winter and the excesses of humid heat. That his work has been taken up and aided with earnestness by the Carnegie board, and that he will be free to pursue his work without the interruptions of business augurs much for the future of horticulture in California.

While California was still a Mexican province David Douglas, a famous Scotch botanist and plant discoverer, found and described some of the wonderful wilk bulb-gardens of the Pacific coast. This was as long ago as 1827, and from that time to 1833 he found many bulbs and sent them to England. They were grown and exhibited at fairs, where they were admired and regarded as very wonderful. Not much was done for a long time, however, toward studying and classifying the plants of the country. The condition has been aptly described by Charles Howard Shinn in an article in "the Land of Sunshine," from which we are permitted to quote, thus:

"These glowing expectations were doomed to a long disappointment, for there was then no Carl Purdy to study the habits and surroundings of the native bulbs, week in and week out, at all seasons, in all parts of California, and so to master his subject as to be able to simplify their undoubtedly difficult culture, finally making it practicably in both Europe and America to grow these most beautiful plants as easily as anemones, tulips and hyacinths. Importation after importation had failed utterly, and European gardners had given up the effort until hardly a catalogue ventured to list these shy, wild bulbs of California; even when a few species appeared, it was without cultural directions, and at prices which kept them beyond the reach of the average purse.

"Now, this was not a small matter, though it might easily seem so to a casual observer. Here was a neglected industry; here was a very large group of many genera and species of bulbous-rooted plants, natives of the Pacific coast, quite lost sight of, while the bulb-flora of regions like South Africa was receiving all possible attention from collectors, dealers, growers and plant-breeders.

The work of making this neglected class of plants widely known required peculiar qualities, a combination, in brief, of the equipments of field-botanist, horticulturist and business organizer. During the last twenty years, a very interesting Californian, Carl Purdy of Ukiah, has built up connections all over the world, has created a trade in Pacific coast bulbs, has made an enviable reputation at home and abroad as a specialist upon their culture and botany, and is now working, with Luther Burbank of Santa Rosa, to develop new races of California hybrid and cross-bred lilies. More than this, he is steadily developing unthought-of possibilities in the way of cultivating species of exotic bulbs here, so that California, under his guidance, bids fair to become more of a world's bulb-garden than Holland or the Channel Isles--and bulb-growing represents one of the very highest arts of intensive horticulture.

"Carl Purdy was born at Dansville, Michigan, March 16, 1861. His ancestors on both sides were among the first settlers in colonial Connecticut. When he was only four years old, his parents 'crossed the plains' by the old emigrant trail, stopping for a time at Turckee Meadows, Nevada. But in 1870 the family settled down in fertile and beautiful Ukiah Valley, in the heart of Mendocino county, and here the boy grew up, fought his way to a fair education, was for a time a school teacher, married a very helpful and attractive wife, and little by little took up his life work, this new bulb-culture, which may possibly prove to be the occupation of his family for several generations to come.

"The first distinct view that we obtain of this tall, gray-eyed California boy, back in the seventies, is that of a faithful little toiler, 'making garden' for an elder sister, and visiting a famous old Glasgow Scotchman, Alexander McNab, who had made his home in the valley and was a notable flower-lover, receiving rare plants and seeds from every part of the world. The broad, thinly-settled valley and the dull, narrow-hearted village seemed to offer little or nothing to keep any boy there; others left to look for wider activities. But this boy held on, quietly, patiently, weaving his web of life in the land where he belonged, and that, as I take it, is much to his credit. At the age of eighteen he was teaching a small country school.

"About this time (1879) some American firm of seedsmen wrote to Mr. McNab asking if native bulbs could not be obtained. He turned the letter over to the young school teacher, and the latter sent a pressed Calochortus flower, and afterward sold "a hundred bulbs for $1.50," the beginning of a business that gradually increased until by 1888 school teaching was given up, and at the present time Mr. Purdy gives most of his attention to the business, distributes yearly something like a quarter of a million native bulbs to European and American wholesalers, employes a number of assistant collectors, and has become recognized as the greatest living authority on Pacific coast bulbs. Nevertheless the bulk of his business is done with a few large firms, and he sells few bulbs in California, for as yet there is hardly any demand at home. Our own bulbs are too different from the old florist types, but flower-lovers are beginning to recognize their value.

"At the present time the Californian bulbs known to planters consist of about one hundred and forty-five distinct varieties and species. the Brodiaeas, handsome, hardy bulbs with showy, long-keeping flowers in umbels, chiefly white, blue, purple, yellow, lilac or pink in color, include about thirty species grouped by Purdy in six sections. The Calochorti, which include some of the most graceful as well as some of the most showy flowers in the world, consist of about forty species and varieties, arranged by Purdy in three sections and a number of minor groups and strains. This family represents one of the most difficult of known assemblages of species for the botanist to classify, on account of remarkable variations resulting from natural crosses and hybrids through ages past. It is only a tireless field-botanist who is capable of writing a monograph on the great Calochortus family with its lovely "star tulips" (once called cyclobothras); its "sego lilies" from Utah; its dazzling scarlet species of the desert (C. Kennedyi); its superb yellow "clavatus" forms, and its hardy and vigorous types of the true Mariposas, or "butterfly tulips." These and many other forms growing wild, closely approach each other by gradations of the most interesting character which in the end bring to grief the mere closet-botanist who is always in danger of clinging too closely to his type specimen. Besides these families of bulbs, there are the Camassias, food-bulbs of bears and Indians; the exquisit Erythroniums (dog-tooth violets); the Fritillarias, Bloomerias and Trilliums, the fine Clintonias of our redwood forests, and many other beautiful bulbs which are becoming favorites in distant lands.

"The wild lilies collected by Mr. Purdy include about fifteen species, arranged by him in four groups. Some resemble the well known tiger-lily; some are white, yellow or pink, and, taken collectively, they form one of the most promising of beginnings for the plant-breeder. It is in such lilies that Luther Burbank has made an especially interesting 'new departure.' Some of the California wild lilies, as they grow in the mountains in localities adapted to their finest development, form wonderful masses of color and motion. I have seen L. Humboldti at its splendid best on a spring-fed mountain slope beside the American river, where an acre of tall plants in full carnelian-red splendor stood with stems a handsbreadth apart, under giant conifers, moving, flashing, in the Sierra wind and sun. But no one has yet succeeded in finding the wholly satisfactory kind of lily to endure drought and trying conditions of the average garden. Therefore years ago Mr. Purdy and Mr. Burbank began to work upon the interesting problem--one, by choosing hardiest stock and native hybrids; the other by crossing and raising thousands of seedlings. Finally, after much selection from these, the best were sent to a natural lily garden in the mountains between Mendocino and Lake counties, where Mr. Purdy watches and works to improve them still further. There is no other lily-garden in the world that holds more promise of improvement and more hardy types than this. Color, shape and habit of growth have all developed surprisingly, and the end is not yet.

"It is probable that these two men will here in ten years produce more new and desirable varieties of lilies than have been produced by all the lily-growers in the world during the last century.

* * * * *

"Summing up Mr. Purdy's work for California horticulture, it can truthfully be said that he first made the collection and sale of wild bulbs successful by studying and systematizing their culture in his own Ukiah garden, after collecting them in their native places. He then devoted special attention to lilies and calochortuses, selecting and introducing the best strains. It only remained for him to develop general bulb-culture, and this is now one of his most important lines of work. He believes that nearly all the profitable species of bulbs grown for market in the older centers of horticulture can be grown quite as well here as in France or Holland. In some respects we have advantages over the classic bulb-growing regions, and Mr. Purdy is now growing daffodils and other bulbs expecting to ship the future crop to bulb-merchants abroad.

Daffodil culture heretofore has been only a flower industry in California. Nearly all the daffodil gardens are close to the Bay of San Francisco. The largest and oldest is situated near Niles, but as that is a family affair, it would hardly be proper to expound on its advantages here. All daffodil gardens are glorious when in bloom, and are favorites of art and literature. Central and northern California seem better suited to the large-scale culture of daffodils, jonquils and other species of Narcissi than do the southern counties.

Daffodils grown in the valleys are not so early as those grown on the hillsides, and thus it happens that the finest daffodils that the wealth and fashion of San Francisco are able to wear come from a most excellently kept garden, that of Mrs. Ivy Kersey, at Haywards, Alameda county. This lady has long collected the leading species and varieties of daffodils--those that Barr and others have found, and that Burbridge, Englehardt and others have hybridized, cross-bred and improved almost beyond reckoning. She certainly takes high rank among daffodil-growers of California, and is also doing good work with Spanish and English irises and other genera of bulbs. Lake Mr. Purdy she believes it possible that California will become a leading bulb-producer, and is trying experiments with cross-breeding varieties. But as long as the flowers are in such demand, bulb-gardens near San Francisco will continue to supply chiefly the flower markets. Some of these days if our plant-breeders produce sufficiently improved varieties of the Irises, Gladioli or Narcissi, whole carloads of California-grown bulbs may go forth to the utter-most bounds of civilization.

There is already a large and increasing demand for California-grown seeds of vegetables and flowers and trees. Some of the most beautiful garden-acres that the wide earth has to show are in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Rafael, Alameda, Humboldt and other counties for the production of 'out-door' seeds, which are larger, heavier, more highly vitalized than seeds of corresponding species and varieties gathered in Europe, often from pot-grown plants under artificial conditions. Even the 'novelties' of the modern seed catalogue do not always come from Europe. But the story of California as a seed-growing land, though one of the most attractive chapters of modern horticultural history, must be left until 'a more convenient season.' Every one of our famous seed-growers, here as elsewhere, is shaking pollen dust on opening pistils and sowing seeds of promise. Thus it has come to pass that there is now as much need of a book upon California horticulture as there ever was for books on fruits and vegetables."

Mr. Shinn writes entertainingly of the work accomplished by the Wizard of the garden, and it is sufficient to say that much of California's horticultural history is merely the story of Burbank's life-work. He writes as follows:

"let us sum a few of the results of the remarkable work of this great plant-breeder, Luther Burbank, in recent years: "In 1887 he introduced five new varieties of Japanese plums, not seedlings, but valuable and the parents of many useful sorts. In 1888 he introduced twelve more varieties. In 1893 he sent out six fine seedlings of his own, besides new walnuts, quinces, blackberries, raspberries and useful hybrid berries. A beautiful dwarf calla and a giant one, both now grown in all the leading nurseries of the world; also new poppies, myrtles, and tomatoes were among his other successes. In 1894 and 1895 the world received more plums and quinces, besides prunes, berries of exquisite flavor and of unprecedented size and beauty, the famous blackberry-raspberry hybrids (40,000 hybridized seedlings were destroyed in successive 'rogueings' by Burbank's unerring hands in order to leave as the last survivor his 'Paradox'). New clematises, callas, roses, and, more than all, an army of cross-bred lilies, were included in the triumphs of this period. These lilies are still being developed by Mr. Burbank and Mr. Carl Purdy, the leading Californian bulb authority.

"The new plums sent out in 1898 and 1899; 'Apple,' 'America,' 'Chalco,' 'Pearl,' 'Climax,' 'Sultan,' 'Bartlett,' and 'Shiro,' and the 'Sugar' and 'Giant' prunes, were all acquisitions to horticulture. Not all are of equal commercial importance, but all are finding places in gardens and orchards, and some are doubtless distined to supplant other varieties. Modern horticulture demands many more varieties than formerly, to suit different localities, markets and seasons. It is fortunately impossible to bind up all excellences in one fruit, and it is the especial glory of Burbank that he has succeeded in producing so many new flavors, so many fruits suited to various purposes and to different climates. His Wickson plum where it succeeds best, and especially in southern California, is perhaps the finest of the earlier Japanese crosses; his Sultan, which is a cross between Wickson and Satsuma, is a superb plum; his Sugar prune, which by analysis contains when fresh nearly twenty-four per cent of sugar (the average of the French prune being about eighteen and one-half per cent), is being commercially tested in all the prune regions of the world.

"Many of Burbank's greatest achievements have been with flowers which, after all, lie nearer to his heart than any fruits. He has improved a large number of things for the seedsmen of Europe and America. one hardly knows how many modern 'strains' of flowers came from his gardens. One silved-lined poppy, new, I think, this season, is a lovely selection. His gladioluses certainly occupy a place of their own, and so do his cannos, roses and clematises."

Mr. Shinn's story should here be interrupted to say that Burbank has introduced a host of improved poppies, also a strain of perennial peas into which there is likely to be injected the fregrance of the best sweet peas. He has also taken up the brilliant Mexican Tigridias, and has already produced much finer flowers in new, gladiolus-like hues. His new Amaryllises are wonderful in their park and field possibilities. Mr. Shinn says:

"The Amaryllises are a vast group of species of brilliant cape bulbs of growing popularity, even where their culture must be in greenhouses. In California gardens they justly take very high place. Now Burbank, by hybridizing species, has produced a type which has flowers measuring nearly a foot across, and four or five such flowers are in a cluster. There are thousands of seedlings of this new giant Amaryllis, and the varieties are being selected and made more permanent. Lastly, for there must come some sort of an end to this list, we have already the new 'Field Daisy,' which was produced by hybridizing the well known and common American wild species with the large, coarse European species, and the result with Japanese species. After this, rigid selection for years has given the gardens of the world what Burbank names 'Shasta Daisies.' The very abundant flowers of the purest white are often four inches across. There are several rows of petals, and type is breaking into other forms and colors, and is beginning to 'come double.' This new 'perennial candidate' for election to garden honors from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson Bay (so wide is its range of climatic endurance) was, as noted, developed from coarse, ill-smelling and rowdy weeks.

"The published writings of Luther Burbank are comparatively few. He furnishes his own descriptions of novelties, and he has occasionally contributed to horticultural journals. He read a striking paper before the Sacramento session of the American Pomological Society, January 18, 1895, and another paper is soon to be published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose in 1898. It is not likely that we shall ever have a book from his pen, but his notes, journals, registers and scrapbooks will some day possess unique value, and should belong to one of the California universities. The recent publications of the Department of Agriculture contain much material furnished by Mr. Burbank.

"One of the best illustrations of the esteem in which Burbank is held 'among those who know' is furnished by the recent action of the Royal Horticultural Society of London, which was established in 1804, and holds unquestioned primacy in its field. This great society, in 1898, planned a 'Hybrid Conference,' which took place in July, 1899, and whose results were published in 1900. The call was for a conference on 'Hybridization (the cross-breeding of species) and on the cross-breeding of varieties,' and the Society then sent out special invitations to one hundred and twenty-five distinguished 'hybridizers,' nine of whom were Americans (four of them, however, from the Department of Agriculture at Washington). Only one, Luther Burbank was selected from the western half of the continent. He did not attend; he was too busy even to send an essay, but Professor Bailey of Cornell, and others, alluded in glowing terms to his success in producing 'new values in fruits and flowers.'"

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