Amid the bustle of campus, there lies an oasis of calm. For that, Santa Cruz has former arboretum director, biogeographer and professor Ray Collett to thank.
Collett died on Feb. 22 at the age of 79, leaving behind a 40-year legacy of exotic plants, memories and scientific research.
Everything in the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum was made possible by Collett, said friend and current director Brett Hall.
“Everything that we are doing here is a product of Ray’s vision for the arboretum,” Hall said. “When he came to Santa Cruz, he recognized the potential for an arboretum because of the marvelous site and opportunities that it afforded.”
Hall described Collett as someone who quietly inspired people.
“He was shy, he was brilliant, and he had an incredible power of concentration,” Hall said. “He could just get things done.”
Collett was born in Andersen, Calif., on May 18, 1932. While still working on his doctoral dissertation at UC Berkeley, Collett was asked to join the fledgling faculty at UCSC by founding chancellor Dean McHenry. Hall says that the decision was not arbitrary.
“McHenry was very careful of his selections of early faculty,” Hall said.
Collett quickly recognized the potential in the unique landscape around the UCSC campus.
“He wanted to develop a garden that would introduce people to these wonderful various forms of evolutionary experimentation,” Hall said. “Ray’s nature welcomed and inspired people to support the arboretum and get involved. It’s through their support that we’ve been able to survive.”
Collett’s friendship with now world-famous horticulturalists Rodger and Gwen Elliot proved to be another pivotal point for the arboretum’s collections. As Stephen McCabe, director of development and research and curator of succulents, proudly stated, “We have the largest collection of Australian plants outside of Australia.” The arboretum’s international notoriety is due in large part to this Australian collection, made possible by Collett’s travels to Melbourne, Australia, in 1976.
The Elliots went on to write encyclopedias on the cultivation of Australian plants, but it was their meeting with Collett, as Hall described, that “changed their lives forever.”
“Together Ray and Brett and all these students, staff and volunteers have [helped the arboretum] from a cow pasture to an internationally recognized botanic garden,” McCabe said. “The community loves the arboretum. Kids come here to get away from classes or the stresses of campus. Some students come to learn about horticulture, habitat restoration, plant evolution or science illustration.”
Collett’s passion made a profound impact on his students.
“A former student of his told me the other day that Ray was the first one that ever really got him to recognize the importance of genetic diversity and population,” Hall said.
A man of many talents and passions, Collett taught a range of courses, including cartooning, natural sciences, horticulture, and climatology.
“One of his other skills was getting volunteers and donors excited about the project,” McCabe said. “In his own low-key way, what he managed to do was bring together a community of people who really care about the arboretum and care about plants and want to keep the arboretum thriving and continuing for the rest of the century.”
His attention to detail was incredible, said Hall.
“We’d be out with Ray for a day, wandering through the bush and then suddenly Ray would stop and say, ‘You know, that [flower] there is the only one I’ve seen that has purple spots on the lower part of the petal.’ He was really able to clue into that diversity within a population or species. He was really tuned in.”
It was appropriate for Collett to pass away near the gardens he built, said Hall.
“Ray really gave us a wonderful gift [in] the collections and the place that he created” Hall said. “[It’s] pretty amazing and sad all at the same time.”
Over the years, thousands of students have contributed to the arboretum.
“We can go out there now and show you hundreds of things that have Ray written all over them, really rare, beautiful plants from all over the world,” Hall said.
Although Collett will no longer be a physical presence at the arboretum, his legacy lives on.