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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.