The Lake Oswego Plant Whisperer
January 21, 1881
Today is the birthday of the incredible American gardener, plant whisperer, and horticulturist Rae Selling Berry.
Almost deaf by the time she was an adult, Rae was an excellent lip reader, and many suspect her deafness helped her attune to plants.
In the early 1900s, Rae started a new hobby: gardening. Like many gardeners, Rae began gardening with a few pots on her front porch.
It wasn't long before Rae collected and grew rare plants - not only on her homeplace - but also on two vacant lots she rented next door.
After subscribing to many English garden magazines, Rae ordered her plants and seeds from the world's best nurseries. She also subscribed to exotic plant explorations to get seeds from top explorers like George Forrest, Frank Kingdon-Ward, and Joseph Rock. Rae wanted the latest and most remarkable plants - and once she got them, she mastered growing them.
In addition to Rhododendrons, Rae had a weakness for Primula. During her lifetime, no one grew Primulas better than Rae Berry Seling. And to illustrate just how much Rae loved Primulas, in April 1932, Rae wrote an article for The National Horticultural Magazine where she profiled the sixty-one species she grew in her gardens - the piece was understatedly titled Primulas in My Garden.
In 1938, Rae and her husband bought a new Lake Oswego, Oregon property. The property's location along a grand ridge offered several microclimates and growing conditions. Best of all, Rae's new place included water - springs, small rivers, a marsh, and a wetland. These features offered unique advantages as Rae picked locations to situate her incredibly rare plants.
Now, it's often said of Rae that she was in tune with the most demanding plants. She had an uncanny ability to understand the needs of her various plant specimens, and she put those needs ahead of design aesthetics. Her incredible Rhododendron collection grew happily in simple raised frames behind her house. And in the spring, visitors to her garden were in awe of her beds featuring great masses of blooming rhododendrons.
In the 1950s, Rae received a single corm of the Chilean blue crocus (Tecophilaea cyanocrocus "tee-KO-fy-LEE-ah sy-ANN-oh-cro-cus"). Native to the Andes in Chile, this blue crocus is exceptionally rare to see in cultivation… unless you were Rae Berry. One memorable spring was when seventy-five Chilean blue crocus bloomed in Rae's garden. Can you imagine?
It was Rae Selling Berry who said:
“You don’t tell a plant where to grow; it will tell you.”