Ray Collett Lecture Series: The Program and the Man Behind It

May 03, 2017

By Linda Lane 

A unique educational event offered at the UCSC Arboretum is the Ray Collett Rare and Extraordinary Plant Lecture Series. Topics include an eclectic range of fascinating facts and theories, as examples, the overview “Relentless Evolution: Of Plants and Their Partners” and the focused “Jewels of the Garden: A Darwinian Natural History of Hummingbirds.”

Several lectures are scheduled throughout each year in the UCSC Arboretum Meeting Hall and all are free community events, including free parking. The Collett Lecture Series regularly invites renowned experts in their field to share recent findings and research with the public.

Erin RiordinThis year, the series began February 20 with “California’s Flora Under Threat: Incorporating Climate Change into Natural Resource Planning,” featuring Dr. Erin Riordan, who studies climate change impacts on California’s native flora, and how these will affect conservation. Her work evaluates the future role of the National Reserve System (NRS) under changing conditions. Riordan received her PhD from UCLA, studying projected climate change impacts and land use change on California sage scrub, a highly threatened plant community in southern California and northwestern Baja California. She is continuing her work modeling climate impacts on species in rare natural communities from coastal and mountainous regions in California. 
lee and lincoln taiz

On May 9, attendees will be treated to the topical and titillating presentation “Flora Unveiled: The Discovery and Denial of Sex in Plants.” Presenters Lincoln and Lee Taiz explain that plants being unisexual and female (a "one-sex model") prevented the discovery of plant sex and delayed its acceptance long after the theory was definitively proven. They discuss the various sources of this gender bias, beginning with women's role as gatherers, crop domesticators, and the first farmers. Lincoln Taiz is a UCSC Emeritus Professor at the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology and a Fellow of the American Society of Plant Biologists. Lee Taiz, a research biologist specializing in electron microscopy, co-authored numerous papers on plant biology and on the history of science while on the staff of the UCSC Cell and Molecular Biology Department.

For topics, dates, and details on upcoming lectures, visit the Collett Lecture Series webpage.

ray collettThe namesake of this series is Dr. Ray Collett, and 2017 marks the fifth anniversary of his death. One of the original UCSC faculty members hired in 1965, he became the first Arboretum Director in 1967. A year or so earlier, the site for the Arboretum was quickly chosen after a Hollister man donated close to 90 species of eucalyptus—he needed a permanent home for his impressive collection of trees. Collett’s immediate task, therefore, was to oversee the conversion of about 130 acres of rough pasturelands into a prominent horticultural site and then to expand this initial collection. With a primary focus on cultivating plants of the Southern Hemisphere, he broke new ground by successfully propagating not only exotic and challenging South African proteas but also, for the first time in America, hundreds of Australian plants.

Under Dr. Collett, the Arboretum became a collection of "living fossils” used by evolutionary biology researchers worldwide. Though at times shy in demeanor, he expressed his affection and enthusiasm for the Arboretum without reserve: "The Arboretum grew out of the rarest combination of propitious events and superlative opportunities. In 1965 how remarkable it was!  The choicest horticultural site in all of flowery California was open and available just where a new campus of the University was to grow." 

A rare species himself, Dr. Collett was extraordinarily gifted with his senses, especially olfactory: he was able to detect a plant species and its fragrant variations at considerable distances. And, as gifted professor, he taught a wide variety of classes, from horticulture to cartooning, and was singularly devoted to students, engaging and encouraging them to enjoy and pursue their own fascinations with the natural world. The Arboretum’s California Native Plant Program Director, one of Collett’s former students, Brett Hall fondly recalls his mentor, colleague, and friend as “a true visionary who decided to develop a garden in order to investigate the origin and development of rare and exotic plants.”

Collett’s successes and accomplishments in the world of plants are too vast to list so following are only a few. Due to his stewardship, the swan river blue hibiscus bloomArboretum became renowned for containing the most extensive collections of Australian and New Zealand plants outside of their native countries along with the largest collection of South African proteas. He is credited with introducing a number of popular ornamental plants to the nursery industry—for example, (pictured right) the exquisite 'Swan River' cultivar of the Australian "blue hibiscus" (Alyogyne huegelii)—and he is recognized for his pioneering work on drought-tolerant plants now common to the California landscape and in residential gardens, such as grevillea, fremontia, and scaevola. And, thanks largely to the foresight and efforts of Collett and the Arboretum, many types of cut-flower plants, previously imported on a large scale, are currently grown in California.

Dr. Collett, who served as Arboretum Director until 1997, died peacefully February 2012 at the Arboretum, surrounded by devoted family, friends, and colleagues and his beloved plants and gardens. His legacy and vision for the Arboretum will continue to be honored and celebrated in numerous ways, especially with the ongoing Ray Collett Rare and Extraordinary Plant Lecture Series.