When it comes to potatoes, Sonoma County has two standouts: the Bodega Red and the Russet Burbank. But the two tubers couldn’t be more different, both in how they began their journey and how—years later—they’ve ended up.
The Russet Burbank is decidedly the rock star of the spud scene. It’s the quintessential American potato, the one that turned Idaho into the spud state. It’s the potato that can be found across the continent in fast food restaurants, grocery stores, and home ovens. (McDonald’s alone purchases more than 3.4 billion pounds of Russet Burbanks annually. The state of Idaho grows approximately 12 billion pounds.)
And while it wasn’t specifically developed in Sonoma County, in a roundabout way, our county is the reason why the potato is so ubiquitous.
It was 1872 when Luther Burbank found a single seed ball on an Early Rose potato plant growing in his New England garden. When mature, the fruit disappeared from the potato stem, sending Burbank on a frantic search.
As he wrote, “So day after day I returned and took up the search again and at last, this patient search was rewarded. The missing seed ball was found.”
But the drama did not end there.
“From that he had 23 seeds. He planted all 23 and all of them grew the following year. But most of them weren't good for anything. Some of them were really pretty, but when he dug them up they got all mushy and had no commercial value, and some had really deep eyes,” said Rachel Spaeth, garden coordinator for Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa.?
“He had one perfect potato that was yellow with a little bit of a rough skin. From that he was able to replant the eyes the next year and get a decent crop out of it.”
This potato was to be Burbank’s ticket to sunny Sonoma County. He offered the potato to a gentleman from Massachusetts for $500, and the gentleman bargained him down to $150.
“He used that money to come to California,” Spaeth explained.
“But that really inspired him and piqued his curiosity, and really gave him that drive to learn more about things in breeding and the plant realm. And he used that money to come out and join his brothers out here.”
After his potato sold and spread across the country, it took a
genetic twist in Denver, Colorado—when a man selected a chance sport off
a Burbank potato plant that happened to be resistant to blight. The
current form of the Russet Burbank is in many ways the perfect
“It’s got pretty stable genetics and
you can't really add too much to it and improve on it. It's definitely
different than most of the Andean potatoes that you would see. The
Burbank russet potato is actually resistant to phytopthera infestans …
the infection that caused the Irish potato famine. That's the
significance of the Burbank potato. It's also the most widely spread,
commercially used [potato], as far as McDonald's French fries,” Spaeth
It also has another excellent commercial quality: it stores and ships well.
“They had a much higher starch content which made them ship better
because they weren't as susceptible to rot,” explained Erin Sheffield, a
docent at Burbank’s Home and Gardens as well as at Burbank’s Gold Ridge
But the significance of the potato for Sonoma
County has less to do with commercial value and more to do with Burbank
himself. Without discovering and selling his russet potato, Luther
Burbank may not have lived here. Residents may not be growing Santa Rosa
plums, Shasta daisies or spineless cacti today. And folks would not be
able to wander his home and gardens in downtown Santa Rosa, marveling at
his creations and wondering at the mind behind it all.
“He only had a high school education, so he wasn't restricted by the
confines of what science told him he could and could not do. And he was
definitely a keen observer. He could pick one seedling out of 500
seedlings and say, that is the one that I want,” Spaeth said.
The Bodega Red is another matter entirely: a potato considerably more
mysterious and elusive than the Burbank. In fact, one might call the
Bodega Red a cult potato—a tuber that’s very difficult to find, but one
that inspires passion for preservation within the Sonoma County
“Local legends alternately say that a South American sailor jumped ship
with the potato and began to grow it. Another states that it came sewn
into the hem of a soon-to-be Latin American bride of a Bodega Bay
landowner. However it arrived, the potato flourished,” wrote Elissa
Rubin-Mahon, a Slow Food member and one of the potato’s early champions.
Rubin-Mahon’s research suggests that Sonoma County’s first cash crop
was potatoes and that—even more surprisingly—the county grew the most
potatoes in all of California in the 1850s. She estimates that 60,000
sacks were shipped from Bodega Bay to San Francisco annually, feeding
San Franciscans and forty-niners as far afield as the Sierra Nevada
But when Rubin-Mahon put feelers out into the
local community to try to find someone still growing these heritage
potatoes, she hit roadblocks.
“I went into the phone book
and found who the old families were, and I talked to them about the
potato. Nobody would come forward with anything... I think it was
basically because I was considered a foreigner as far as the old
families were concerned,” Rubin-Mahon said.
But another potato crusader, Abigail Meyers, had better luck.
“A friend of mine through Slow Food knew Abigail Meyers, who was then
the director of Bodega Land Trust... She put the word out and a family
member came forward anonymously because the family really did not want
to release the potato,” Rubin-Mahon recalled.
That anonymous donor provided five small potatoes, about the size of one’s pinky finger. Meyers grew them out to create more.
From there, the potato took off. Collaboration with a potato expert at
UC Davis confirmed that the women had indeed found a distinct strain of
potato—one that likely originated in Chile. The potato’s proud history
and endangered status led it to become part of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste,
giving the humble spud national recognition.
most importantly, collaboration with U.C. Davis led to another
connection: contact with Pure Potato, a small company that specializes
in developing seed potatoes from endangered heirlooms.
Unfortunately, the Bodega Red is very susceptible to disease. But Pure
Potato was able to isolate a virus-free strain of potato, which local
farmers were able to grow in substantial amounts for the first time this
The next challenge is convincing the Bay Area
community that the Bodega Red is the best thing since... well, not
sliced bread, but perhaps the Russet Burbank.
don’t have a market, if people don’t want to buy it, there’s no reason
for the farmers to grow it. We have to create a demand for the potatoes
so that the farmers see a reason to grow it,” Rubin-Mahon said, noting
that a committee was in the process of forming to help preserve the
potato, including promoting awareness among local restaurants and
And of course the biggest question is: how does
the Bodega Red taste? Rubin-Mahon has been growing the potato for years
(the virus-susceptible strain), but the supply of seed potatoes was so
limited she kept everything she grew to re-plant. For the first time
this year, she was able to eat the Bodega Red.
year, we started eating what we grew. The texture is kind of between a
red potato and a Yukon gold. They’re kind of creamy, they have a nice
thin skin so we’ve been basically steaming them and having them with a
little bit of butter and cream just very simply. But when the weather
gets a little cooler I’m going to try them in a gratin, because it will
hold together but still be creamy,” Rubin-Mahon said.
“They have a really nice nutty flavor and the skin is not bitter.”
For information about how to obtain seed potatoes of the Bodega Red,
where to buy mature Bodega Red potatoes, or to support the preservation
effort, contact Rubin-Mahon at email@example.com.
1800 - Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway car #63 on electric tracks. All of the interurban passenger cars had express compartments and carried small parcels at the rear. This car is located in Rio Vista Railroad Museum.
6858 - Freight motor 1004 of the P&SR Railroad. These motors were used heavily during the fruit harvest season in Sonoma County. The Overnight Freight Express ran refrigerator cars that carried apples and berries to Petaluma and on to San Francisco via steamer ships.
1824 - P&SR train at the Bassett Station (close
to Fredericks Road) south of Sebastopol. Engine 506 is pulling four
passenger cars with many people hanging out the windows of the cars and a
line of 1930's autos on the road next to the train. Since the
P&SR ended passenger service in the early 1930's, this may have been
one of the final runs carrying passengers.
1815 - The L-shaped Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railway Powerhouse in background, built 1903 from Stony Point Quarry rock. The Powerhouse served as the freight depot and housed the step-down transformers for the Sebastopol substation for the P&SR electric railway. In the left foregound is the original wooden Sebastopol depot station. The Powerhouse was later named the Hogan Building. Photo facing south easterly, with north and westerly facades visible. The train tracks seen in the easterly direction comprise the present day Joe Rodota Trail.
1831 - Railroad workers laying rails of interurban Petaluma & Santa Rosa Electric Railway down Main Street Sebastopol. Circa 1904.
1812 - Forestville station of P&SR electric railway with electric car No. 55. This car and three other identical cars (Numbers 51, 53 and 57) were built in St. Louis by American Car Company. Circa 1904.
His first successful plant was developed through selection. In 1871 he found a potato seed ball
and planted its 23 seeds in a special plot. One produced many large,
firm potatoes. Burbank replanted these and reaped a small harvest of
fine potatoes. He sold the rights to the potato for $150 for travel fare
to California, having determined to move there. In Santa Rosa, where
three of his brothers had already settled, he established a nursery
garden, greenhouse, and experiment farms that became famous throughout
He worked by effecting multiple crosses of foreign and native strains
to obtain seedlings, which he grafted onto fully developed plants for
rapid assessment of hybrid characteristics. He carried on his plant
hybridization and selection on a huge scale. At any one time he
maintained as many as 3,000 experiments involving millions of plants. In
his work on plums, he tested about 30,000 new varieties. Much of his
valuable data was lost, but he wrote several books. Luther Burbank, His
Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Applications was published
in 12 volumes in 1914-15.
Burbank died in Santa Rosa on April 11, 1926. The Plant Patent Act of 1930 amended U.S. patent law to permit protection of new and distinct varieties of asexually reproduced plants, other than tuber-propagated plants. This legislation resulted from the growing awareness that plant breeders had no financial incentive to enter plant breeding because they could not exercise control over their discoveries. In supporting this legislation, Thomas A. Edison testified: "This (bill) will, I feel sure, give us many Burbanks."
Luther Burbank was inducted into the Inventor's Hall of Fame in 1986. Plant Patent
Nos. 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 41, 65, 66, 235, 266, 267, 269, 290, 291, and 1041 were issued to Burbank posthumously.
Assessment of Luther Burbank's Life Work
"The science of breeding
and advanced rapidly during the first two decades of the new century,
and though it may not be generally recognized, the movement is traceable
to Burbank as a potent activator." According to Professor H. J. Webber,
plant-breeder and geneticist and a contemporary of Burbank. "Because of
the influence of Burbank, the science of plant breeding was
advanced by at least twenty years and for this accomplishment alone, he
deserved a sizable monument to his memory." (From Luther Burbank A
Victim of Hero Worship, by Walter L. Howard, Emeritus Professor of
Pomology, University of California, in Chronica Botanica, 1945.)
Burbank, Luther, 1849-1926 Luther Burbank: his methods and discoveries and their practical application (1914)
, 12 complete volumes are digitized for public use here
A recent article assesses Luther Burbank’s work: Journal of Heredity.
April 14th, the day the museum inaugurated the new exhibit running through October 31st, 2000. Refreshments were served along with the museum opening and dedication with raising the flag on the new Ted Mueller Memorial Flagpole.
General view of the basketry exhibits
Native Plant usage by the native peoples.
The Pomo and Miwok art exemplified in variety and size of basketry.
An expert, modern basket weaver showing just how it's done in all its complexity and beauty.
Pineapple Variation 1880
Jack and Jill Went Up Green Hill, Quilted 2000 (left)
, designer unknown (right)
This one quilted by Judy Mathieson, 1994
Log Cabin in Purple/Gold
Designed by Margaret Kay
Log Cabin Quilt
Detail of quilt made 1900
Log Cabin Quilt
Log Cabin Quilts, Contemporary.
Flowers (above), Contemporary (below)
Courthouse Steps Kimono 2000
Quilted by Evelyn McClure
Pelican and Wind Wave by Tony Sheets (center) plus items of the past: hats, bottles, etc. (left); more modern ceramics to the right.
Book and Ceramics: A Potter's Life and Thoughts by Marguerite Wildenhain
Museum with Screen Printed Silks (upper right) by Joy Stocksdale with American Pottery Art 1880-1920 nearby and more
The Art of the Quilt: SILK MOON SHADOWS by Judy Mathieson.