Meghan Ray, University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley

The Working Gardener

By: Clare Al-Witri Ryan Tuttle
ClareAl-Witri

Clare Al-Witri is a professional gardener. Clare has gardened on both the East and West Coasts in public gardens including…

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RyanTuttle
www.ryantuttlephotography.com

Ryan Tuttle is an adventure, lifestyle, and music photographer located on the Central Coast of California. She specializes in creating…

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Horticulturist Meghan Ray scales a rocky hillside to tend the Karoo display in the UCBG Southern Africa collection. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Horticulturist Meghan Ray scales a rocky hillside to tend the Karoo display in the UCBG Southern Africa collection. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

I didn’t have to travel for this interview—Meghan Ray is a colleague of mine at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley (UCBG) where she cares for the Southern Africa collection and the Cycad and Palm Garden. We met to talk and work side-by-side in mid-March, the perfect time to admire the ephemeral annuals and bulbs in the Southern Africa Karoo display. On one of the first balmy spring mornings of the year, I found myself crouched on a sizable rock set in a gravelly slope, carefully picking weedy grasses out of a mix of germinating annuals, budding bulbs, and early flowers.

Removing grasses and other weeds from between the rocks and emerging plants in the Karoo display requires knowledge and a fine touch. Photos: Ryan Tuttle

Removing grasses and other weeds from between the rocks and emerging plants in the Karoo display requires knowledge and a fine touch. Photos: Ryan Tuttle

Meghan speaks about her work deliberately. This corner of her garden is intended to represent an annual wildflower event that follows winter rains on arid plateaus in the western region of southern Africa. The display provides a representative, scaled-back version of the real thing.

Today, the Lachenalia, Ferraria, and Moraea blooms dazzle those who pause, perhaps crouch and take a close look at the individual flowers that compose the color wash. Meghan usually spends some time each day weeding and finds that this daily task allows her to closely observe seasonal changes in the garden. In her own words, she determines tasks for the day by “seeing where things are at and acting appropriately.”

Ferraria crispa, a bulb from South Africa, blooms in the spring with a curious fragrance that’s suggestive of both vanilla and something fetid. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Ferraria crispa, a bulb from South Africa, blooms in the spring with a curious fragrance that’s suggestive of both vanilla and something fetid. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Golden sheets of annual Ursinia cakilefolia blanket the hillside garden. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Golden sheets of annual Ursinia cakilefolia blanket the hillside garden. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Having spent more than 20 years working as a gardener, Meghan is aware of the toll that repetitive tasks can take on the body. Each day, she organizes her work to vary the physical effects of her projects.

Meghan Ray (left) and author Clare Al-Witri work side by side amidst the annual spring display in the 
Southern Africa Karoo garden at UCBG. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Meghan Ray (left) and author Clare Al-Witri work side by side amidst the annual spring display in the 
Southern Africa Karoo garden at UCBG. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

When I ask Meghan about an accomplishment in the garden she is proud of, she tells me a story about garden time. Once, while working at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, she passed on buying Cardiocrinum giganteum seed because giant Himalayan lilies only begin blooming after seven years of vegetative growth. Thinking she didn’t have the time, “I didn’t order it and seven years went by, and I thought if I had ordered the lily it would be flowering now.” The lesson she took from the experience was to always think long term, “especially in a botanic garden, we have plenty of time,” she explained.

At the UCBG, Meghan is working to develop a sizable amaryllid collection. She sees amaryllids—among them species in the genera Haemanthus, Brunsvigia, and Nerine—as filling “a great aesthetic niche.” These bulbs grow new foliage in the spring and flower in the summer, a time when not much else is blooming in the Southern Africa collection. Some species can take years to establish and reach maturity: seed must be ordered and then germinated, young bulbs must be grown in pots until they are large enough to be planted in the ground, and then it takes more time for them to reach flowering size. But come midsummer, these ecstatic blooms are the highlight of the garden’s terraces. The effect of the display increases each year as a few more plants reach blooming age. The work Meghan completes today will be reflected in the future; as she put it, “at some point it’s going to be a really big amaryllid show.”

Leucospermum conocarpodendron, a pincushion protea, thrives in full sun and well-drained soil. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Leucospermum conocarpodendron, a pincushion protea, thrives in full sun and well-drained soil. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Meghan points out the cone of an Encephalartos cycad as she explains how she breeds its offspring for conservation. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Meghan points out the cone of an Encephalartos cycad as she explains how she breeds its offspring for conservation. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

A tidy mound of Euphorbia clavarioides, a spineless dwarf succulent endemic to Botswana, Lesotho, and South Africa. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

A tidy mound of Euphorbia clavarioides, a spineless dwarf succulent endemic to Botswana, Lesotho, and South Africa. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Gardening at the UC Botanical Garden, where most plants are of documented wild origin, poses challenges that are different from the typical home or public gardener. When I ask Meghan if there is something that causes her anxiety in the garden, she succinctly answers, “Almost always, death.” Wild-origin plants can be difficult to grow and difficult to replace. Meghan has struggled to grow Southern Africa’s proteaceous plants in the garden’s heavy clay soil, but through trial and error is learning which species can grow in East Bay conditions. It involves a lot of death, but over time the result is a healthy, regionally appropriate planting.

Meghan cleans up and rolls her wheelbarrow back down the hill at the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

Meghan cleans up and rolls her wheelbarrow back down the hill at the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Photo: Ryan Tuttle

When we finish weeding, I follow Meghan as she walks her collection. She pauses at the foliage of Leucospermum conocarpodendron, whose leaf tips are edged with wax-like droplets of red pigment. “Look at this plant, really look at the edge of the margins of this plant,” she instructs me. “It’s so beautiful.” Visitors to UCBG often ask, especially in spring, where they can go in the garden to see flowers. Meghan reflects, “this garden is about a lot of other things, and I think people would really be rewarded by looking at other parts of the plant beside just flowers.” As working gardeners, part of our living is looking closely; I think the trick is to create situations where visitors are motivated to do the same.


The UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley is situated on 34 acres in the Berkeley hills set above campus. The garden is organized primarily by geographic region but also has gardens dedicated to the cultivation of herbs, roses, and California native plants. The garden is open to the public seven days a week. For more information visit www.botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu.