Ringed by farms and vineyards, the wine country city blossoms every spring.
If Luther Burbank could see present-day Santa Rosa, Calif., the place he called home, the renowned horticulturist might describe it as a hybrid. Once a sleepy farm town, it has retained its roots while giving rise to a culture of cool.
The largest city in wine country, Santa Rosa spreads along both sides of Highway 101, about an hour north of San Francisco. Within its sprawling boundaries, the rural and the urban comfortably coexist. Travelers turn to Santa Rosa to take in a concert, see contemporary plays staged by local theater groups, admire a new exhibit of modern art, or visit local gardens and nearby wineries.
Walking through downtown Santa Rosa, you can’t help noting the vivid presence of its past. Historic Railroad Square, in the heart of town, is a bustling shopping district with buildings that date back to the 1880s. The Luther Burbank Rose Parade & Festival unfolds here every year, winding through downtown and featuring flower displays, live music, and food. This year’s celebration on May 20 will be the 112th in honor of the truly constant gardener who settled in Santa Rosa in the late 1800s and described his new home as nature’s "chosen spot of all this earth."
The man known as "the plant wizard" conducted extensive tests that brought him fame, modest fortune, and credit as the father of some 800 varieties of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and grains. The Shasta daisy. The russet Burbank potato. The Santa Rosa plum. Burbank’s successful experiments also included obscure cultivars such as the white blackberry and the plumcot. The plants he grew served not only home gardens but major industries as well, and their offspring turned up on tables around the world.
In 1940 , when future resident Charles Schulz graduated from high school, the yearbook rejected his drawings. At its peak, his Peanuts strip was enjoyed by 355 million readers in 2,620 newspapers in 75 countries and 26 languages.
Burbank died in 1926, but the cottage where he lived and the greenhouse where he tinkered still stand several blocks east of Railroad Square, open to the public and preserved as a National Historic Landmark. The Luther Burbank Home & Gardens maintains much of his work. Wandering through the gardens, visitors can see such Burbank innovations as the spineless cactus, developed as forage for cattle in the desert.
In the years since Burbank’s death, Santa Rosa has swelled into a sprawling city, its population increasing more than tenfold. Growth has brought some great restaurants, including Zazu, which occupies a converted chicken coop on the outskirts of the city, and Willi’s Wine Bar, which serves small plates of contemporary California, Asian, Mediterranean, and French cuisine. After dining, you can take in a concert at the Santa Rosa Symphony or a drama by a local theater company at the 6th Street Playhouse.
For all the modern changes, agriculture remains a vibrant part of Santa Rosa. Grapes qualify as a local staple crop, although at Kendall-Jackson Wine Center not everything grows on a vine. North of town, off River Road, the beautiful grounds contain a three-acre demonstration garden for fruits, vegetables, medicinal herbs, and seed-saving programs.
Of all the things grown around Santa Rosa, none has been more popular than Peanuts. For more than 40 years, Charles M. Schulz lived in the area, drawing the celebrated comic strip. The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa offers exhibits that trace the origins and evolution of Charlie Brown and his companions. Archives hold Schulz sketches and letters, and an education room provides free materials and workshops. Across the street another part of the Schulz complex, the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, is a cool attraction for kids. Outside the museum, the Snoopy Labyrinth—a winding corridor of grasses and granite rocks—is shaped, of course, like a beagle’s head.
Photography by Maxine Cass
This article was first published in March 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.