History of Rae Selling Berry

The Garden has completed a remarkable journey from the private garden of Rae Selling Berry to that of a non-profit botanic garden with many public purposes. Those who have been associated with the Garden treasure the legend of Rae Berry as they continue to meet the horticultural and conservation needs of today and tomorrow.
Rae Selling was born on January 21, 1881 in Portland, Oregon to Ben Selling and Mathilda Hess. Her father established several clothing companies, was a prominent state politician and civic leader, and a nationally known philanthropist. Her mother had been a school teacher. Her younger brother Lawrence was later to found the Portland Clinic, the state's first multi-specialty medical clinic.

As a teen, Rae was whisked away on an eighteen month world tour by her mother's sister. Soon after her return, she showed her independence by eloping with Alfred C. U. Berry, an Englishman raised in India. Alfred was a contractor who worked on various public projects including parts of Portland's water system. He was superintendent of the Portland airport for twelve years. For over thirty years, the couple lived in the Irvington neighborhood of northeast Portland where they raised two sons, Alfred Jr. and Robert, and a daughter, Elsa.

Rae Berry's life was markedly affected by early deafness, a hereditary hardening of the bones of the middle ear which began its progression when she was in her teens. By developing an exceptional ability to lip read and a system of note writing, she met the restrictions of her disability. She delighted in observing the differing shades of green in her garden and was an exceptional cook. Certainly, she had an instinctive sixth sense about plants, intuitively divining their needs.

The Irvington Garden

Her interest in plants began in 1908 with an attempt to enhance the porch of her Irvington house with pots of flowers. From porch to yard to an adjoining lot, her garden grew. She subscribed to gardening magazines, particularly from England, where she first read about plant expeditions to Asia and Europe. Through her financial support of the expeditions, she obtained seed from many of the noted British plant explorers: Frank Kingdon-Ward, Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff, and Joseph Rock. Few other gardens matched her collection of species rhododendrons. Perhaps no garden outside the British Isles rivaled her primula collection. Her own treks with fellow plant enthusiasts to the mountains of the American West, British Columbia, and Alaska added to her collection of alpine plants.

By the mid-1930's, Rae Berry was known as a serious plantswoman; but she had run out of space for her plants. In 1938, Rae and Alfred Berry moved to the location which became The Berry Botanic Garden.

The New Garden

The search for new property was primarily a search for ample acreage with diverse habitats to meet the needs of a wide variety of plants. They chose a bowl-shaped site nestled near the top of a hill just north of Lake Oswego which included springs and creeks, a ravine, a meadow, and a cattail marsh. The eastern slopes were covered with young second-growth Douglas fir. Architect Reuben T. Sinex designed the traditional frame house. Its front door and fireplace were handcarved by Portland artist and craftsman, Fritz von Schmidt. The tree carved on the front door marks the transition of the house to the garden.

Landscape architect John Grant of Seattle designed the plantings around the house but Rae Berry arranged the placement of major areas of the garden. In doing so, she considered the needs of the plants rather than their visual appeal. Plants that like "wet feet" were grown in moist areas while the slopes grew plants that required drainage. Behind the house, she planted terraced log beds with primulas and alpine plants. A favorite was Tecophylla cyanocrocus, a vivid blue alpine from Chile now almost extinct in the wild. Raised frames accommodated alpines with more exact horticultural needs.

The "Compleat Plantswoman"

Rae Selling Berry liked exceptional plants. The harder a plant was to grow, the more devoted she was to its cultivation. For her principal collections --- rhododendrons, primulas, and alpines --- she met horticultural requirements with uncanny accuracy. Her ability to succeed when others failed added to her legend as "compleat plantswoman," indicative of her highly-developed and wide-ranging skill with plants.

In Rae Berry, a visitor to the garden met a charming hostess who could become a severe gatekeeper if the guest was pretentious or not a serious student of plants. Distinguished botanists and horticulturists eagerly visited and revisited the collections. She carried on an active international correspondence with her peers. Exchanging seeds with many, she further expanded her collections.

Even in her seventies and eighties, Rae Berry enjoyed field trips to the Wallowa Mountains searching for Oregon's only primrose, Primula cusickiana, which she called her "problem child" and dubbed "Cooky." The horticultural challenge of P. cusickiana defied most attempts to raise it outside its alpine home. For these trips, she typically dressed in a brimmed hat, middy blouse, jodhpurs, and knee-high laced boots-reminiscent of a camp fire girl. On daily tours of her garden, she was accompanied by a procession of small dogs and perhaps a gardener. Late each summer afternoon, she weeded. Her tools included a hair pin, used to comb out the root pattern and groom the plant she freed of weeds. The hair pin doubled as a tool to spear slugs.

When she was ninety, Rae Berry planted rhododendron seed destined for maturity years later. She died at her home in 1976 at age 95. During her life, she received honors from various plant societies: the first Award of Excellence given to a woman by the American Rhododendron Society in 1965; and the 1964 Florens de Bevoise Medal of the Garden Club of America for "her remarkable knowledge of alpine plants, primulas, and rhododendrons and success in growing the most difficult subjects." She received a citation from the American Rock Garden Society as one of the great gardeners of America. She was a founding member of the American Primrose Society and the American Rhododendron Society.

The Friends of The Berry Botanic Garden

Rae Selling Berry created a species garden of international reputation. Although she spent a lifetime building the garden, she made no arrangements for its survival and fully expected the garden to go the way of bulldozers after her death. Despite her expectation, the garden flourishes.

In March 1978, the estate was purchased by The Friends of The Berry Botanic Garden. This non-profit corporation was formed "to preserve, maintain, disseminate, study and add appropriate plant material to the collections." The purchase followed months of intense activity to save the garden from residential development, a certain fate except for the intervention of three women who made conserving the collections their personal goal. These "founding mothers," Molly Grothaus, Patricia Wessinger, and the late Jane Youell, brought the plight of the garden to the attention of plant authorities and enthusiasts locally and internationally.

The fund drive, which raised over $300,000, succeeded because of wide support. An early gift of $10,000 from the Stanley Smith horticultural Trust in Scotland showed the international importance of the Berry collections. The unanimity of support from plant societies to which Rae Berry belonged testified to the value of carrying on her effort. First-ever support for a project other than one of their own came from the American Rhododendron Society and the Oregon Field Office of The Nature Conservancy.

Timing of the drive was critically tied to settlement of the estate. Because Rae Berry's heirs wanted to see the garden preserved, they granted additional time to the Friends organization and agreed to lower the price to match the available funds. Throughout the eighteen month campaign and until tax exempt status was achieved, gifts to The Berry Garden Fund were received by the Portland State University Foundation.

The Berry Botanic Garden

At its founding in 1978, the garden had 49 members; by the early 1990's membership topped 1,000. Members dues and twice yearly plant sales provided significant annual funding. Income from the endowment fund was vital to the fiscal support of the Garden's established programs. Grants and contracts from foundations, corporations, and government funded many special programs.

The substance of The Berry Botanic Garden was its programs and unique collections. Because of the collections, this garden was high on the list of fine botanical gardens in the nation and abroad. The major collections were primulas, rhododendrons, alpines, species lilies, and native plants.

Unknowingly, Rae Berry began the native plant conservation program which became a central focus for the Garden. Her interest in alpine plants led to her acquisition of some rare natives in the wild. After her death, all the collections were appraised. Thirty-nine native species were found to be rare or endangered forming the nucleus for a developing conservation program.

The Berry Botanic Garden's Conservation Program now soon extended far beyond the Garden's immediate collections. In 1983 the Seed Bank for Rare and Endangered Species of the Pacific Northwest was established with a grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust. The Seed Bank was the first to attempt to collect seeds of endangered plants from an entire region, thus maintaining a sanctuary for genetic material of plants at risk of extinction.

This mission to ensure native plants matched that of the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC), established in 1985. The CPC's goal was to create a national network of botanic gardens and arboreta interested in conserving endangered species. The Berry Botanic Garden became one of eighteen charter Participating Institutions. Using stored seeds, the Garden's plant scientists learned germination methods and conducted research on plant growth and reproduction. They worked with other groups and government programs to help secure populations of imperiled species in the wild. As of 2011, the Garden maintained seeds of over 350 kinds of native plants with backup storage for the rarest through a cooperative program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Seed Storage Laboratory at Ft. Collins, Colorado.

A Public Mission

Locally, the Garden was known as a horticultural treasure and for its classes and workshops to bring information about plants and their importance to the community. Regionally, the Garden's reputation was built upon its Conservation Program's contributions to protecting and preserving endangered plant species of the Pacific Northwest and in educating young professionals in its internship programs. Although the garden organization ended in 2011, the Seed Bank today continues to preserve genetic treasures, and field work protects plants in their habitats. In 1985 the BBG conservation staff and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mounted a dramatic rescue of a stand of Barrett's penstemon from a cliff in the Columbia Gorge. Another continuing field project is to help save North America's rarest plant, the Malheur's wire lettuce of Eastern Oregon. Such "saves", may lead to relocation of the plant or off-site propagation for re-establishment in the wild.