Rae Selling Berry, 1880-1976
Molly Grothaus, Lake Oswego, Oregon
Rae Berry had become a famous gardener before she had lived half of her 96 years. She loved the wildlings of the world and her garden was crowded with species from the Caucasus, the Himalayas, the Alps, from South America and her own collecting trips. But her two great loves were rhododendron and primula.
Mrs. A. C. U. Berry subscribed to all the major plant hunting expeditions from 1932 on. She was gardening at that time on a city lot, but soon found it necessary to rent the back garden of the house next door. As packet after packet of seeds came pouring in from Kingdon-Ward, Ludlow and Sherriff, Rock and others, and flat after flat of rhododendrons reached the planting out stage, a larger garden became a necessity.
In 1938 she built a new home in a suburb of Portland. It was surrounded by five acres on which to plant the wealth of species which continued to arrive from various expeditions on into the 50's.
During this time she was exploring the western mountains herself and collecting in Alaska, searching in particular for American primulas and dwarf willows. She sent many plants and seeds to botanical gardens overseas and received others in exchange. Consequently, she was well known internationally before most American gardeners realized her accomplishments.
The Berry garden became a mecca for botanists, horticulturalists and gardeners. There are several thousand rhododendrons growing there, nearly all started from seed sent her by plant explorers. The pink R. calophytum and the excellent Berry form of R. orbiculare are spectacular in bloom. Among the very rare rhododendrons are the large leaf R. rothschildii, a chartreuse form of R. chryseum and R. sanguineum subsp. cloiophorum. According to Davidian, only one other plant of the last named is known to be in cultivation. Every visit during the blooming season brought the pleasure of seeing a rhododendron in flower that hadn't been seen on any previous visit. She is thought to have had the finest private collection of species rhododendrons in the United States.
Beyond the lawn to the south of the house is a boggy spot where masses of candelabra primroses make a colorful setting for the rhododendrons beyond. Hundreds of rare primula grow happily in the garden; many of them far more difficult to tame than are rhododendrons.
Behind the house on a gentle slope are the alpine beds. Here soil mixes were concocted to meet the special needs of any plant. Lewisias grew larger than they ever do in the wild. Huge beds of gentians bloomed unfailingly and tiny willows clambered over rocks.
Plants which Rae Berry especially liked were planted in large masses. If seeing whole beds of Pleione formosana or Shortia uniflora, grandiflora rosea in bloom was impressive, seeing a hundred or so bulbs of Tecophilaea cyanocrocus, the blue Chilian "crocus", in bloom was unforgettable.
Mrs. Berry was a charter member of the ARS. In 1950 she donated several plants of R. degronianum, grown from seed collected in the wild, to the Portland Test Garden. One of these was more dwarf and compact, with superior foliage and deeper color which made it outstanding. This plant received the first Award of Excellence given by the ARS.
There is also a form of R. trichostomum named 'Rae Berry' which is a very desirable deep pink.
In 1962 Mrs. Berry became the first woman to be given the Gold Medal by the ARS. Within the next three years she received the Gold Medal of Honor of the Garden Clubs of America and a citation from the American Rock Garden Society as one of the really great gardeners of America "for her outstanding contribution to rock and alpine gardening and to the particular study of our native plants."
Rae Berry was, in addition, a founder member of the American Primula Society and the first to receive from that Society an honorary life membership. She grew more species of primula than anyone outside the British Isles.
There was a mystical quality to Rae Berry's ability to grow rare and difficult plants. Perhaps it was, in part, an ability to feel what each plant needed. Certainly, it was an ability to translate the habitat of a species into the proper growing conditions for her own garden. She may have made it all seem easy, but her great success was also based on years of study, work, experiment and experience.
But listing her accomplishments does not picture the wiry little woman with a girlish smile and a pixie twinkle in her eye. Her boundless enthusiasm made her truly ageless. She was planting rhododendron seed at 90 and actively working in her garden some years beyond that. One living memorial to her is the remembrance by her fellow gardeners of her kindness and generosity to them.
It will never be possible to estimate the influence that Rae Berry has had on gardening in the Northwest, and, indeed, far beyond her own region. But there is no doubt that her garden has set a standard of excellence and beauty which other gardeners may only hope to emulate.