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Luther Burbank and the Santa Rosa Climate

Updated on May 31, 2009

Luther Burbank, famed horticulturist and a pioneer in plant genetics, made the city of Santa Rosa, California, home for over 50 years. When Luther first visited the area, situated about 70 miles north of San Francisco and 30-40 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, he noticed the myriad of micro climates in Sonoma County which astounded him. The micro climates make weather prediction a difficult job for meteorology experts. The southern end of the county is closest to the ocean and fully moderated by marine influences and fog. However, a short 20 miles north along the Hwy 101 corridor and the climate changes to a warmer environment because the marine air does not penetrate inland. If one continues up 101 to Cloverdale, 40 min. north of Santa Rosa, you actually have hot and dry climate from May through October, ideal for citrus and palms. This is because geographically the area is well inland and protected by high hills that prevent nearly all marine influences. Thus, on a typical summer day, while it may be 100F there, in Santa Rosa, it is 85F, in Petaluma (closer to the ocean), it is 75F. If you travel east on Hwy 12 to Jack London State Park or Sonoma, it rises to 100F again, a mere 20 miles from Santa Rosa!

Luther Burbank chose Santa Rosa because it was ideal between the extremes. It seldom freezes in the winter for long, never snows, summer is really from May through October and can be through November. Rains begin then but heavy rain is usually in January-March. By April, most of the rain is gone again until November.

Burbank introduced more than 800 new plant varieties, most created on his farm in Santa Rosa (now in the center of the city) or in Sebastopol. He was a friend of inventor Thomas Edison and carmaker Henry Ford who visited frequently.

If you eat a Russet potato, those are the big ones, thank Burbank for this. If you grow Shasta Daisies, it took him 17 yrs. of experimentation to create it. Luther Burbank developed countless variations of fruits and berries. The most popular are the Freestone peach, the Santa Rosa plum, July Elberta peach, Flaming Gold nectarine and July Alberta peach.

Other exotic plants and trees survive in the Santa Rosa climate:

The Silk Floss tree is native to Brazil and Argentina, but it is cultivated in many tropical areas. while common to Southern California, they also do well in the Santa Rosa area. Silk floss trees will drop their leaves when the temperature falls below 27ºF, but established specimens have been known to survive freezes down to 20ºF. They are unique for they grow large thorny spikes on the trunk that resemble a dinosaur. They grow to 25-30 ft. Their large purple flowers are a sight for the eyes!

The Jacaranda is a large deciduous tree with fine-textured, fern-like pinnate leaves. When in bloom, your senses are treated by the fragrance and sight. There are about 50 species of Jacaranda, most of them native to South America and the Caribbean Basin. Native to the Amazon River Basin countries of Brazil, Argentina and Peru. The tree stays in bloom for more that 8 weeks and can tolerate temps as low as 25F for a short period, but temps of 30F for longer periods is better. Several of these trees exist in SF area including Santa Rosa.

Another unique tree is the Australian Flame Tree ( Brachychiton acerifolium) can grow up to 40 ft. Called a flame tree for its red blooms that make it stand out. The tree can withstand temps as low as 27F and also exist in the Santa Rosa area. These trees are really more suited for the LA or San Diego areas. Common in the tropics.

Also, the Princess tree or Paulownia Tormentosa native to China and Southeast Asia can thrive in this area, although, few exist. This tree can grow up to 12 ft in one year and provides an awesome display of flowers. Commonly found in the Eastern US, used as a lumber generating tree and grown in large forests. Their leaves are sometimes 2 ft in diameter.

Of course, nearly all of the palm trees survive very well in the Santa Rosa zone. Date and Queen palms are common sights north of San Francisco all because of the unique micro climates in the area!

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