Ray Collett, founding director of UCSC Arboretum, dies at age 79

ray collett
Ray Collett

Ray Collett, the founding director of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, died on Wednesday, February 22. He was 79.

Collett, a professor emeritus of natural history, was a member of UCSC's founding faculty when the campus opened in 1965. As founding director of the Arboretum, he oversaw the conversion of about 130 acres of rough pastures into a leading horticultural site. The Arboretum is renowned for its collections of plants from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, as well as California natives.

"Ray Collett left the campus, the community, and the world a living memorial, not only here in the wonderful collections of the UCSC Arboretum, but also in the many varieties of plants he helped introduce to California gardeners," said the Arboretum's current director, Brett Hall, who started working with Collett at the Arboretum in 1975 as a UCSC student.

Collett spent his last days at the Arboretum surrounded by the plant collections he helped establish. He was under hospice care in Hall's home on the Arboretum grounds.

Collett is credited with introducing many popular ornamental plants to the nursery industry. These include the 'Swan River' cultivar of the Australian "blue hibiscus" (Alyogyne huegelii) and the 'Hurricane Point' cultivar of the California fuchsia (Epilobium canum). He received several honors in recognition of his work, including the American Horticultural Society's 1986 Professional Citation, the California Horticultural Society's Annual Award for 1997, and the California Association of Nurserymen's 1997 Research Award.

Collett was also a popular teacher, mentoring students who worked at the Arboretum and teaching courses in art, botany, biogeography, horticulture, and meteorology. He gathered plants for the Arboretum that would be useful for both teaching and research. Among the unusual plants he added to the Arboretum's collection was Amborella trichopoda, collected in 1975 from the South Pacific island of New Caledonia by a pair of UCSC students. In 1999, when a genetic analysis identified Amborella as the most primitive living flowering plant, the UCSC Arboretum was the only botanic garden in the United States with living specimens of it.

"Ray Collett personified UCSC at its very best: vision, integrity, imagination, accomplishment," said Todd Newberry, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology and a UCSC founding faculty member.

Collett earned his B.A. in chemistry and Ph.D. in geography from UC Berkeley. He worked at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the U.S. Weather Bureau before joining the UCSC faculty. He served as Arboretum director from 1965 through 1997.

No services have been scheduled as yet. Contributions in memory of Ray Collett may be made to the UCSC Arboretum online at arboretum.ucsc.edu/donate or by sending a check made out to the UC Santa Cruz Foundation to University Relations, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95064.