A Woman, A Garden, An Organization: The Berry Botanic Garden at 25

High mountains and their plants were exhilarating to Rae Berry, here atop Eagle Cap in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. Photo courtesy of the American Primrose Society

High mountains and their plants were exhilarating to Rae Berry, here atop Eagle Cap in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. Photo courtesy of the American Primrose Society

Passionate gardener, exceptional plantswoman, and an inspirational figure in the world of horticulture, Rae Selling Berry prevailed over a condition of hereditary deafness and left a remarkable legacy for plant lovers. In the Berry Botanic Garden, the admirable depth and breadth of the plant collections, and the projects the garden carries out today attest to Mrs Berry’s enduring spirit.

Alice Joyce, West Coast Gardenwalks

When The Friends of the Mrs A C U Berry Botanic Garden signed articles of incorporation in 1977, they undertook to go forward with the care and development of a garden already mature and with prestige far beyond the Pacific Northwest.

The story of Rae Selling Berry and her garden sets the stage for the twenty-five-year history of The Berry Botanic Garden (its amended corporate name) and its ongoing role in horticulture, education, and conservation of native plants.

Rae Selling was born in Portland in 1881, the daughter of a successful businessman; both of her parents were active in civic and philanthropic pursuits. In 1893, they took Rae and her brother Laurence for a year’s travel in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. When she was eighteen, Rae and an aunt set out for an eighteen-month world tour. Shortly after her return, she married A C U Berry, an English civil engineer. By the time she was in her early thirties, she was totally deaf and became an accomplished lip-reader. At their home in northeast Portland, their three children, Elsa, Robert and Alfred Jr, grew up.

So did Rae’s garden. She studied English garden magazines, ordered from select nurseries and, by the 1920s, was subscribing to plant explorations in Asia and elsewhere. Of all the seeds that came to her from the expeditions of George Forrest, Frank Kingdon-Ward, Ludlow and Sherriff, Joseph Rock, and others, she most coveted the many species of Primula, which she grew with unrivaled success.

Primulas in My Garden, by Rae Selling Berry, appeared in The National Horticultural Magazine, the journal of the American Horticultural Society, in April 1932. She detailed the primulas she was growing and the special needs of each—sixty-one species in this obscure Portland garden. Her primula collection was said to be exceeded only in the British Isles. Her correspondence with other collectors and gardeners was extensive.

Rhododendron species and other treasures prospered, outgrowing the Berry lot, as well as the one next door. In 1938, the family moved to acreage in southwest Portland, a natural bowl of varied habitats, springs, and natural woodland. House and garden were designed together; Rae’s favorite trees and shrubs (with special attention to fall and winter color), were laid out in consultation with John Grant, Seattle author and landscape designer. Her transplanted collection would become the basis for The Berry Botanic Garden.

With one gardener and occasional extra help, Rae Berry cultivated this garden for nearly forty years. Logs from on-site clearing shaped long rectangular beds for hybrid auricula primulas, gentians, and alpine plants. In cold frames, pleiones (choice orchids from Asia) flourished, as did Rhodohypoxis, tiny but brightly colored bulbs from South Africa.

She received, in the 1950s, one corm of the royal blue Tecophilaea cyanocrocus, originating in the Andes of Chile, then and now rare in cultivation. At one time, she saw seventy-five in flower in her garden…imagine!

Rae Berry wisdom: “You don’t tell a plant where to grow; it will tell you.” She learned how a plant grew in the wild and devised the soil or exposure it would accept—a “little cave” for one, north side of a rock for another. (The word microclimate had not yet been compounded.) She welcomed friends whom she felt were qualified to appreciate her garden; anecdotes abound of her curt responses to those who were not. Honors came to her, from the American Rhododendron Society, Garden Club of America, and others.

Troughs dominate the scene at the north end of the rock garden. Author's photograph

Troughs dominate the scene at the north end of the rock garden. Author’s photograph

On to Natives

An eagerness to know the northwest natives led her to Alaska, the mountains of Washington and Oregon, and especially to the Wallowas to find Primula cusickiana, appearing at the edge of the melting snow, with the fragrance and color of violets. She called it “Cookie” and valued it most highly, probably because she could not keep it long in her garden. It was the obvious choice for the logo of The Berry Botanic Garden. This was a time when collecting from the wild was an accepted practice, but she strongly opposed wasteful or commercial collecting.

By happy chance, a gardener with almost as many novel ideas as Mrs Berry came to work for her in 1968. Jack Poff remained through her lifetime and then as a member of the garden staff until his retirement in 1999. He still lends a hand or a word of advice on special projects.

Jack urged Mrs Berry to let him replace the decaying logs with rock to provide pockets and crevices for her special soil mixes and other amenities. Though dubious, she let him do one section. Many tons of rock later, at the hand of a man who knows what a mountain outcrop looks like, the rock garden now displays a quarter-acre of alpine plants.

Lilium occidentale, on federal, California, and Oregon endangered species lists, was propagated at the Berry Botanic Garden for reintroduction in southern Oregon. This cooperative project with the Bureau of Land Management has been progressing since 1996. Photograph by Ed Guerrant

Lilium occidentale, on federal, California, and Oregon endangered species lists, was propagated at the Berry Botanic Garden for reintroduction in southern Oregon. This cooperative project with the Bureau of Land Management has been progressing since 1996. Photograph by Ed Guerrant

A New Era

When Mrs Berry died in 1976, her wonderful garden, which her family could not maintain, was put on the market, with a purchaser/developer eagerly at hand. Three members of the Portland Garden Club—Molly Grothaus, Patti Wessinger and Jane Youell—spearheaded a race to form a non-profit corporation, raise money, and buy the property. The family helped with price and time concessions, and many local foundations and organizations lent support. A large early gift from The Stanley Smith Trust in Scotland alerted Portlanders that a valuable resource was at risk.

The purchase was made, with $185,000 and enough more for a year’s operation, but with no endowment and much to be done. Volunteers joined Jack in the garden, set up offices in the house, started a library, issued the first newsletters and bulletins to the growing membership, and organized the first plant sale offering choice selections from the garden—all during 1978. In the next year, two college students were offered research opportunities in the garden, and a seed list was offered in 1980. With a grant from the Garden Club of America, a greenhouse was built.

Ed McRae, of Oregon Bulb Farms, was enlisted as the first garden director. He was followed by Mark Hayes, David Palmer, Dr Linda McMahan, and, currently, Janice Dodd.

Lewisias and penstemons of the Northwest color the quarter-acre rock garden. Photograph by Linda McMahan

Lewisias and penstemons of the Northwest color the quarter-acre rock garden. Photograph by Linda McMahan

The Seed Bank

A new role for the garden began in 1983 when Molly Grothaus pointed out that, although Kew’s seed bank at Wakehurst Place had begun in the early 1970s and the United States Department of Agriculture guarded seed of agricultural interest, the United States had no seed bank of imperiled native plants. With a grant from the Fred Meyer Trust (now the Meyer Memorial Trust), a young botanist, Julie Kierstead (Nelson), was hired to devise a system for the collection, cold storage, and germination of native seeds, and for the ultimate reintroduction of these species to the wild, if needed. Her system has been emulated elsewhere and is the basis for the current seed bank operation at The Berry Botanic Garden.

Species for the first seed collections were chosen from Rare, Threatened and Endangered Vascular Plants in Oregon: An Interim Report (Siddall, Chambers, Wagner, 1979). Although they were not among those first collected, thirty-eight of these valued plants were then growing in the Berry Garden.

In 1985, the Garden was invited to be a charter participating member of the Center for Plant Conservation, now based at Missouri Botanical Garden; the Garden’s focus would be Oregon, Washington, Northern California, and Idaho. The prestigious Chevron Conservation Award came to Julie in 1988, recognizing her seed bank work, leadership role in securing passage of an Endangered Species Act by the Oregon Legislature, and a newsworthy rescue and restoration project at Bonneville Dam.

Dr Ed Guerrant, then adjunct professor at Lewis and Clark College and a Garden board member succeeded Julie in 1989. He expanded the already valuable cooperation with federal and local agencies and is often invited to participate in such projects as a conservation strategy session in Hawaii and, in 2001, the international conference of botanists at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, “Seed Conservation: Turning Science into Practice.”

The Garden’s facilities grew dramatically in 1994 with an addition on the house to contain the Pamplin Visitor Center, providing space for classes and events and an office/laboratory area for the Seed Bank. Library space was increased for both books and slides. The capital project also included the Jane S Miller Family Horticultural Building and the Henry W Wessinger Greenhouse.

With grants from the Meyer Memorial Trust and the Collins Foundation, the Seed Bank gained a concrete and steel vault with controlled humidity and temperature (the dessicator is no longer on the kitchen counter!) and a sophisticated freezer unit for permanent storage of almost 9,000 accessions of 314 taxa (at last count). Half of each accession is deposited with the USDA; the other half remains at the Garden for ongoing germination and growth testing.

Fallen blossoms of Rhododendron decorum carpet the “forest” floor. Photograph by Julie Kierstead Nelson

Fallen blossoms of Rhododendron decorum carpet the “forest” floor. Photograph by Julie Kierstead Nelson

The Garden Today

Walking around the Garden’s six-and-one-half acres today, we pay tribute to what Rae Berry nurtured and to how much has been accomplished in the past twenty-five years. In early spring, the pale gold Corylopsis sinensis, now more than twenty feet wide, floods the entry drive with fragrance. A high cloud of pink and white nearby is the crown of the rhododendron forest, including plants of Rhododendron decorum, R. fargesii, and R. calophytum. We will later walk among their gnarled trunks. Soon a fine show of Primula rosea and native camas (Camassia quamash) will flourish where the natural seepage has been channeled in gravel trenches to replace the old cattail marsh. Asiatic primulas love that seepage, while European species favor the rock garden, as do numerous small jewel-like ericaceous shrubs, native lewisias and penstemons, and saxifrages.

The fragrance of Corylopsis sinensis wafts far beyond its twenty-five-foot spread in early spring. Photograph by Vern Marttala

The fragrance of Corylopsis sinensis wafts far beyond its twenty-five-foot spread in early spring. Photograph by Vern Marttala

Birds and butterflies find native food sources beside cascading pools built a few years ago. There are numerous troughs, an elevated alpine frame, and propagation frames to supply spring and fall plant sales, as well as new plants and replacements for the Garden. Carnivorous plants fill a concrete bog, while native plants offer year-around interest nearby. Magnolias, peonies, daphnes, and other choice ornamentals are in their favored spots. A towering Cornus kousa, katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), and Enkianthus campanulatum all have a rhododendron understory and native groundcover. Rhododendrons, of course, appear throughout the garden.

A bridge over the year-around stream marks the edge of the large natural area, unimproved in Rae Berry’s time. Upstream, Darmera peltata thrives around the springs, above sphagnum islands harboring a variety of Pacific Northwest natives. Spreading on the slopes are Disporum, Tiarella, Asarum, and other natives that should be seen more often in home gardens.

In every season, this garden offers a rich horticultural experience commemorating the legacy of a dynamic woman. Come visit us as we continue Mrs Berry’s vigorous approach to the cultivation and preservation of exceptional native and exotic plants.