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How the Genus Primula Connected Three Horticulturists, Resulting in Public Gardens, Conservation, and Cultivation

Articles: How the Genus Primula Connected Three Horticulturists, Resulting in Public Gardens, Conservation, and Cultivation

Winter 2024

As a budding horticulturist, I had no idea that two accomplished plantswomen from the mid-20th century, whom I’d never met, would steer my own horticultural aspirations.  In a new position, at a newly opened public garden, the stories of these two visionary women sparked an idea in me that influenced the culmination of my career.  

Part I – Rae Berry

Rae was an exemplary plantswoman of the early 20th Century.  She was born in Portland, Oregon in 1881.  Both of her parents were active philanthropists and wanted their children to have a well-rounded education. 

When she was 12, the family took a year’s vacation around Europe, the Middle East and the United States.  That must have been quite the stimulating experience for a budding adolescent.  When she was 18, she and her aunt took an 18 month world tour.  What wonders would she have seen at the end of the 19th century?

Shortly after their return, she wed an English Civil Engineer, Alfred Berry and settled in Portland.  She was affected with a hereditary deafness and by the time she was in her early thirties, she was totally deaf, but had become an accomplished lip reader.

During this time, she immersed herself into gardening in the Willamette Valley where the range of plant material to grow is vast.  She subscribed to English gardening magazines and absorbed knowledge with each issue. 

She started to order plant material from the most renowned nurseries of the time.  Her skill as a plant propagator led her to subscribe to plant expeditions for shares of the seed acquired on collecting trips to Asia. 

These subscriptions read like a who’s who of the plant explorers of the early decades of the 20th Century: Joseph Rock, Frank Kingdon-Ward, George Forrest, Ludlow and Sheriff among others. 

She especially coveted seed from the Genus Primula which she was able to grow with unparalleled success.  Her expanding collection rivaled the collections of the large formal institutions of Great Britain. 

In 1932, she penned the article Primulas in my Garden for the American Horticultural Society’s journal The National Horticultural Magazine where she shared details of growing the 61 species she was cultivating with great success in her backyard.  She became a source for cultural information for an extensive network of other plant collectors and gardens.  She also targeted Sino-Himalayan Rhododendron species to plant.

By the mid-1930s, her growing collection crowded out of her backyard into an adjoining yard.  The family moved to an acreage in southwest Portland to accommodate her vast array of plant material.  This location consisted of varied habitats that would suit the requirements of her collection. 

She would say “You don’t tell a plant where to grow; it will tell you…”. With her keen horticultural sense, she learned what it would take to grow specific plants with regard to soil, water and exposure. 

The garden was laid out with assistance from John Grant, a Seattle landscape designer.  She took full advantage of the site’s springs, creeks, meadows, ravines and marsh areas to grow her collections to their best.   She began to construct beds from logs cleared from the site and planted her collection of Primula auricula and other alpine plants. 

I can see why Rae Berry loved this plant. I only wish it would have been warm enough to smell... Photo: Merrill Jensen

Over the years, these beds began to break down.  A gardener, Jack Poff, who came to work for Rae in 1968 urged her to to replace the rotting logs with rock.  She allowed him to do a section as a trial where he created niches and crevices for the soil mixes she made for her special collections.

The trial bed flourished and ultimately, a quarter acre rock garden was created where her extensive collection of Primula and other alpine plants thrived.

Ever the curious plantswoman, she began to explore the mountainous regions of Alaska, Washington and Oregon to collect the native wildflowers that grow in abundance on the slopes of these magnificent mountains.

One specific plant, Primula cusickiana, Oregon’s only native Primula, proved to be more than a challenge for her skills. She affectionately called them “Cookie”.  She made excursions to Oregon’s Wallowas mountains on many occasions to collect them. 

Primula cusickiana and Ranunculus sp. Photo: Merrill Jensen

She lamented on numerous occasions how its cultural requirements continued to elude her.  She collected native soil and clumps of turf imbedded with the plants, and with hopes for them to bloom in her home garden.  On very rare occasions was she able to coax them to flower. 

She also shared plants with Kew and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh where they couldn’t produce any better results.  She loved taking fellow plant enthusiasts to the Wallowas to share the joy of finding them in the wild.  The lavender-purple flowers with yellow eyes and a fragrance to die for thrilled her every visit.  

Her expansive garden captured the attention of numerous horticulturists and botanists who would visit to see her spectacular collections and share information and plants with her. 

In 1964 the Garden Club of America awarded her the Florens de Bevoise Medal for her vast knowledge of plants.  In 1965 she received the Award of Excellence from the American Rhododendron Society – the first woman to receive the honor.  She was also awarded for her work by the American Rock Garden Society (now the North American Rock Garden Society). 

She actively continued to garden into her 80’s and 90’s.  She continued to sow seeds for woody plants that she knew she probably wouldn’t see bloom in her lifetime.  She died at home in 1976 at the fine age of 96.

Her exquisite garden became the Berry Botanic Garden (another story unto itself) whose mission was “to preserve, maintain, disseminate, study and add appropriate plant material to the collections.” 

While inventorying the collections it was discovered that 39 species were rare or endangered in the wild.  This discovery led to the formation of the Seed Bank for Rare and Endangered Species of the Pacific Northwest, the first seed bank in the US that is dedicated to the preservation of germ plasm of rare native plants.

Regrettably, the Berry Botanic Garden was shuttered in 2011 due to ongoing financial issues; the Seed Bank is still in operation at Portland State University. 

I’m sure that Rae would be saddened with the turn of events that ended her garden, but she would be heartened that her legacy continues with the preservation of rare and endangered plants that she spent time with in the wild.

Part II: Caroline Jensen

Caroline was born in Eureka, California. Her family later moved to the Bay Area where she attended school in San Francisco and graduated from Commerce High School and later the Heald Business College. 

After graduation she started work at the California Department of Motor Vehicles and then moved to the US Geological Survey (USGS).  In 1947, the Water Resources Division of the USGS transferred her to Juneau, Alaska when that agency officially opened offices in Southeast Alaska.

In 1951, she married Carl Jensen, a nephew of John and Marie Peterson, German immigrants to Southeast Alaska.  John ran the local hardware store until the gold mining bug caught him.  Carl and Caroline inherited the property that John and Marie homesteaded in 1904. 

In 1961, Carl and Caroline moved “out the road” to that utilitarian home and garden.  In the years that Caroline had lived in town, she became an avid gardener and received acclaim and recognition as Juneau’s foremost lay horticulturist and expert in Primula. 

Her gardening skills came from extensive reading of all the books and journals she could access.  Her observational skills were outstanding and allowed her to have a magnificent garden in Juneau’s wet, maritime climate.  Like Rae, Caroline also experimented with what she could grow in a challenging climate – a skill that she practiced for the rest of her life.

Caroline rolled up her sleeves and tackled the task of transforming the homestead into a beautiful ornamental garden.  She also tended the bountiful vegetable garden that has been in continuous production since 1904.  In the photo record, an array of flowers soon softened the harsh edges of the unique property. 

The Petersons had chosen the site well.  The south-facing property is on the shore of Pearl Harbor on the Inside Passage where it is well protected from harsh, Alaskan winter winds.  It is also backed by a mixed Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock forest of mature trees most of which exceed 150 feet in height. 

This microclimate proved to be perfect for planting a wide range of Primula, a genus that Caroline dearly loved.  Her newly created beds exploded with a range of spring color from the hundreds of Primula she had grown from seed.  She was able to grow approximately 25 species and cultivars from the limited resources that were available to her at the time. 

Caroline loved sharing her wonderful garden by the sea with members of the Juneau Garden Club (JGC) and American Primrose Society (APS).  She penned articles for the JGC’s reference book Gardening in Southeast Alaska…the go-to resource for growing in a place that receives more than 90 inches of annual rain. 

A second population was tracked down from information provided by an American Primrose Society member. After searching the area for about an hour, only a handful of plants were located. Photo: Merrill Jensen

Each year she sold Primula she had started from seed in her basement.  That annual plant sale soon overcrowded her property; the JGC adopted it and moved the sale into town for the Saturday before Mother’s Day.  This has become an annual tradition where hundreds of gardeners come to shop for their vegetables and perennials.

In 1992, APS hosted Primula Worldwide, a symposium in Portland, Oregon dedicated to all things Primula.   It truly was a worldwide gathering of plant experts from the UK, Japan and all across North America. 

More than 300 people attended and were treated to lectures from Frank Cabot, noted horticulturist and founder of The Garden Conservancy; Ron McBeath, Assistant Curator at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (where they are the world renowned growers, collectors and conservators of the genus); Tsuneo Torii, President of the Sakurasho Society (the Primula sieboldii society of Japan); and Tass Kelso, botanist and researcher of North American Primula species among others. 

Tours for the participants included the Portland Japanese Garden, one of the best examples of Japanese landscaping outside of Japan, and Berry Botanic Garden, home to a large collection of Primula

One of the attendees from the Alaska contingent was none other than Caroline Jensen who was duly impressed with the presentations, but it was the visit to Berry Botanic Garden that captured her imagination. 

This author speculates that Caroline started the process of turning her garden into a public institution just weeks after returning home to Juneau.  I believe that she was a forward thinker and didn’t want all her hard work to create a beautiful landscape to go for naught. 

The process took 5 years and experienced a few bumps along the way.  She first approached the University of Alaska Southeast to see if they would take and care for the property.  Unfortunately, University personnel could not guarantee holding the property into perpetuity, so she politely moved on to the City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ) as a possible steward for her property and vision. 

Working with the CBJ Parks Director and with the Southeast Alaska Land Trust, an agreement was made wherein the property would become the Jensen-Olson Arboretum upon her passing.  A conservation easement was established in 1998 that preserves the property into perpetuity. 

Caroline drafted this mission statement for the future Arboretum:

“The vision of the Arboretum is to provide the people of Juneau a place that both teaches and inspires learning in horticulture, natural sciences and landscaping – to preserve the beauty of the landscape for pure aesthetic enjoyment – to maintain the historical and cultural context of the place and its people.” 

This mission statement is one of a very few among public gardens that champions preservation for its pure aesthetic value.  This is another example of Caroline’s forward thinking when she set up the parameters for her property.

On February 21, 2006 she passed peacefully in her sleep at home.  Three days before, she penned the following: 

“For those who love to garden, there are deep spiritual rewards that transcend the constraints of logic, economics and time. [..] We’re thinking of the deep and subtle sense of connectedness to the seasons… the miracle of a sprouting plant… the cycles of life, death, and rebirth every gardener experiences in his or her garden.

The peacefulness of gardening is what has attracted us, and made lifelong gardeners of so many.

[..] What more could you ask than just a little land, the blessings of nature, good health and the willingness to enjoy the garden way of living.”

The Arboretum is truly a gem for the community and is enjoyed throughout the year.  It was one of the few locations in Juneau that remained open during COVID shutdowns and it provided a place where visitors could experience a bit of “normalcy” during those difficult times.

Read More from Pacific Horticulture’s Archives 

Louise Godfrey’s 2002 article Pacific Horticulture | A Woman, A Garden, An Organization: The Berry Botanic Garden at 25   

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.  

From Tim Thibault’s 2001 article, A Fresh Look at Camellia reticulata 

George Forrest was the first Westerner to wild-collect Camellia reticulata early in the twentieth century. 

William McNamara’s 2002 Making a Last Stand: Acer pentaphyllum 

During an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society in 1929, Joseph Rock discovered Acer pentaphyllum in southwestern Sichuan near the small Tibetan town of Muli.   

Part III: My Own Experiences

I was introduced to gardening on my 7th birthday.  My maternal grandmother sent me a bag of Crocus corms to plant.  As a young boy, the significance of that gift was lost on me. 

My mother took me outside to plant the seemingly shriveled, nuggets of nothingness in early November and once they were in the ground, I promptly forgot them. The following spring, my mother asked me to come outside to see a surprise.  There in the bed was a drift of bright yellow Crocus… I was hooked! 

My parents were active gardeners and our yard was filled with trees, blooming shrubs and perennials.  It was a joy to grow up with a place that I considered my own secret spot. 

As my high school years came, the yard lost some of its significance to the call of other activities.  From a young age, I had wanted to be a wildlife biologist and geared my high school classes toward that path. 

Shortly after graduation, a family friend who had just graduated with a degree in wildlife biology counseled me that my career choice might not be the best idea due to the scarcity of jobs.  I seriously reconsidered the idea of 4, 6 or even 8 years of higher education only to emerge without employment. 

With that in mind, I didn’t go directly to college but followed other paths.  One of those took me into the US Air Force which gave me more time to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up and it afforded me the G.I. Bill which would fund my future college education. 

While stationed in Hawaii, I had a community garden plot to keep my fingers in the soil.  One Saturday morning I was watching an episode of PBS’s Victory Garden.  They were interviewing horticulturists at a large public garden.  I was immediately struck with the thought “these folks are getting paid to work with plants all the time?!” 

Right then, I made the choice to start a career in ornamental horticulture. I steered my college education in that direction and immensely enjoyed the coursework. 

After graduation, my career finally took me into public horticulture.  My career mentor and friend Keith Wooliams was a Kew-trained horticulturist with an emphasis in collections.  With his encouragement, I started designing and installing collections-themed plantings.  Species tulips and iris were my first collections driven installations.

My public garden career began at the Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, a challenging climate with hot summers and heavy, alkaline clay soils.  From there it was to the fertile Willamette Valley where The Oregon Garden was in its very early stages of development. 

After the challenging growing conditions of Southwest Idaho, Oregon was a horticultural paradise where you could grow most anything from bananas to cactus and everything in between.  For a junior plant collections wonk, it was almost paradise. 

Unfortunately, The Oregon Garden fell upon hard financial times and the dream job vanished.  I found a new opportunity in the Bay Area at the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden in Palo Alto where the milder climate expanded the plant palette. 

Species Salvia captured my attention as one of the garden members was the author of the monograph for the species.  She encouraged me to rework an old bed with Salvia as the cornerstone for the planting. 

Other beds were dedicated to plants from the Mediterranean Basin which grow in the Bay Area’s parallel climate. 

While researching vacation information for Alaska one afternoon, I came across a job announcement for the Jensen-Olson Arboretum, a new, yet-to-open public garden in Juneau.  I was immediately captivated as I had always wanted to live in Alaska, and jumped at the opportunity. 

My background had prepared me for the rigors of getting a new public garden up and running.  The fact that I shared the same last name as the benefactor was happenstance.

I interviewed over the course of 3 days in a very snowy visit, was subsequently hired and I packed up my car for the ferry ride north. 

During the interview process I was told that the grounds were packed with Primula.  My previous horticultural experience with Primula was that they were disposable annuals one purchased at the large box stores and immediately threw away after they bloomed.  I wasn’t ready for the array of color and the diversity of species that came up that first spring as the snows melted away. 

Here is my first view of Primula cusickiana. This plant was the holy grail for noted plantswoman Rae Berry. Photo: Merrill Jsensen

Since Caroline had planted them throughout her property, I decided that I had better roll up my sleeves and find out what had captivated her.  She had a large collection of books in her library, but one really caught my attention.  It was John Richard’s monograph Primula. 

In reading that the genus was one of the largest in the gardening world with close to 500 species, I abandoned my view that they were just a disposable annual.  That first spring in Juneau, I was stunned at the beauty of massive drifts of Primula denticulata and the spicy fragrance of the tall P. florindae that graced the beds. 

As a true plant geek, Primula became the new focus for me.  And, bonus, they were perfectly adapted to Juneau’s cool, very wet, maritime climate.  I soon set about to acquire more species and cultivars for the new public garden.

Over the next few seasons, I acquired seed from various seed exchanges in the UK and US, and from commercial sources around the world.  In a few short years I had procured and grown new material that added to Caroline’s original collection.  The number of species and cultivars grew from about 30 to over 60. 

In 2011, I attended a plant collections symposium sponsored by the American Public Gardens Association (APGA) and met some of the prominent national collection holders for assorted plant families. 

In speaking with the Plant Collections Network (at the time named North American Plant Collections Consortium) Manager from APGA, she suggested that I seek national accreditation for our collection of the genus Primula

We had a long chat in which which I learned that it would not matter that we were a small institution with limited resources and only 5 years old.  She assured me that had no bearing on assessing a properly curated collection.  If we were willing to do our due diligence and garner City support, why shouldn’t we? 

After a year’s hard work tallying and documenting the collection as well as establishing various curatorial policies, we submitted the necessary documentation.  The Jensen-Olson Arboretum was awarded the Nationally Accredited Plant Collections TM certification for our efforts in stewarding the collection.  It was quite an accomplishment for such a small, young public garden.

Part IV: Connections

In the course of reading documents Caroline had left as part of her estate, I came across articles about Rae Berry and all the work she had done with the genus.  While employed at The Oregon Garden, I had made trips to Berry Botanic to talk with their collections staff and remembered the Primula collection that I had not paid proper attention to during those visits. 

I read more articles about Rae’s collection trip and her trials and tribulations of successfully growing native Primula in her Portland garden.  I had a connection to her with those feelings as I too had struggled to keep wild collected Alaskan Primula alive. 

The first one that challenged me was P. anvilensis that I had collected on a trip to the Seward Peninsula around Nome (USFS collection permits in hand).  The plants survived the move to their new location, but failed to show up the following season. 

My analog to Rae’s attempts with P. cusickiana was with Juneau’s local alpine P. cuneifolia ssp. saxifragifolia.  These alpine plants lived on the exposed ridges 2000 vertical feet above Juneau, not a vast distance, but something in its DNA prevented it from thriving at the Arboretum’s sea level elevation.  After numerous attempts (following Rae’s various cultivation methodologies) I resigned myself to enjoy them in situ.

While researching native North American Primula, P. cusickiana kept popping up among the flora in locations that I had visited.  I too soon caught the “find this plant” bug. 

It blooms in the early spring in the Intermountain West, a season that normally I didn’t have much free time to go plant hunting. 

A window of opportunity finally presented itself during a time when they should have been blooming.  I contacted an old friend who is a Botany professor, Emeritus at the College of Idaho who knew the location of some populations.  We set a date and time for fieldwork. 

During the night before our planned outing, an unexpected snowstorm blew across Southwest Idaho.  We conferred over the phone, agreeing that the snow would likely quickly melt so we continued with our plans and arrived at our designated meeting place. 

The habitat for the major population of P. cusickiana in southwest Idaho is a steep, north-facing slope with assorted grasses and sagebrush. This population only covers a few acres. Photo: Merrill Jensen

After a short drive and steep hike, we found the first plants peeking through the snow. My colleague told me the population we were looking at grew only in this very specific spot; a steep, grass covered, true north facing slope.  He showed me that if you walked across an imaginary line where the aspect changed just a bit…no Primula. 

I started to take photos and it was fun to see the snow cover melt away as we wandered back and forth looking at the hundreds of plants that were in full bloom.  Unfortunately, the wind prevented us from observing Rae’s description of the flowers possessing great fragrance. 

When we first arrived at the site, a late spring snow had covered many of the plants making for an interesting composition. Photo: Merrill Jensen
The hot, dry habitat for the 2nd population. With only a handful of plants found, this population is in grave risk of disappearing with a warming climate. Photo: Merrill Jensen

A long time American Primrose Society member had emailed me the location of another population that he had observed years before that my colleague was unaware of.  A 30 minute drive brought us to the new location which we discovered to be under assault from invasive grasses. 

We wandered back and forth and finally located a few blooming Primula.  We speculated that in this location the Primula probably wouldn’t be able to grow there much longer given the competition from invasive grasses and increased heat due to climate change – a sad situation for sure. 

With photos in the camera, a good day of plant exploring came to an end and brought me perhaps full circle to the connections I have enjoyed and from which I have benefitted through Rae and Caroline. 

Final Thoughts

The love of this specific genus connected 3 plant aficionados spanning decades.  This connection manifested in a variety of ways including the creation of public gardens, continued conservation of the genus, and cultivation knowledge gathered and shared through trial and error.

Public gardens are tasked with the mission to share knowledge about the natural world that surrounds us all.  These spaces also help conserve and distribute seed, both domestically and internationally. 

Inspired by a passion for public horticulture, each of us appreciated being able to see, collect and share plants from the wild, not just Primula, but other material from western North America. 

On the drive back home from that day in the field, I pondered what it would have been like if the 3 of us had had an opportunity to sit and chat.  Beyond that, I mused at how meaningful that chat would have been if we’d have shared it in one of the gardens that we tended for others to appreciate.

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