Luther Burbank’s Children

On the way out to Bodega Bay yesterday we stopped in Sebastopol at the Luther Burbank Experimental Farm, or what’s left of it anyway – all but three acres of an original 18 have been sold off. It is disheveled, and there are no guided tours, just a few acres of numbered plants, mostly fruit and nut trees, that you can look up on a brochure and map in a box by the barn. That didn’t matter at all. It’s a wonderful place.

I felt like the plants were Burbank’s patient children, waiting for his, or another guardian’s, return. Many of the plum trees had fruits, some of them ripe. Many of them were clearly not meant for eating! Beyond heirloom in rarity – these were breeder stock. Plums small and puckeringly tart. Neon yellow crosses with apricots. Living works in progress, frozen in time. A genetic palette for a master breeder. One oblong dark purple plum in particular was ripe, and heavenly. Warm from the sun, sweet, with floral, rosy aftertastes. Unfortunately the tree wasn’t labeled, so I have no idea what it was. There were sweet small cherries too, with an unusual green planty, or smoky flavor, and dozens of heirloom apples, including the Gravenstein, which is common in Sebastopol, and an entire hedge of antique apples being grown on the site by the California Rare Fruit Growers Society. The experience only reinforced my desire to someday visit the New York Agricultural Experiment Station Orchard that Michael Pollan wrote about in The Botany of Desire. A living museum of thousands of apple cultivars, including the wild Khazak apples from the Tien Shan.

Apparently the Gravenstein growers in Sebastopol can’t make enough money off their trees to justify harvesting them anymore. They just drop fruit in the fields, and let the branches break as they get overfull with fruit. We’ve made Gravenstein hard cider, and it was good – the apples don’t travel well, but they’re a bit tart, and they press nicely. It seems like a resource that should be taken advantage of, especially given all the grape fermenting going on in the area! Actually, it looks like we’re not the only ones to come up with this idea. Ace Ciders come from here (I had no idea!), and it looks like they’ve got a little cider brewpub just outside of Sebastopol, with live music almost every night. We’ll have to make a stop there some time on a future visit!

By Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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