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Plant Focus

Quercus macdougallii
A rare oak endemic to the Sierra Juárez in Oaxaca

Bob Berry (1916-2018)

Bob Berry during a visit by the IDS in 2016, standing in the shade of a Quercus rysophylla, grown from seed he collected in 1989 in Chipinque, Nuevo León, Mexico © Harriet Tupper

Bob Berry, renowned oak collector and longtime member of the IOS, died August 2, 2018 at the age of 102 in Gisborne, New Zealand. Bob described himself as a sheep and cattle farmer who collected trees as a hobby. His life’s work is Hackfalls Arboretum, a 50-ha plantation of trees and shrubs comprising over 3,000 taxa from 478 genera, including the largest oak collection in the Southern Hemisphere (453 accessions, c. 160 taxa) and one of the finest collections of Mexican oaks anywhere. One wonders what the result would have been had tree collecting been more than just a hobby.

Bob was an unequalled source of knowledge on many subjects, especially species of hardy trees. His formal schooling covered only primary school, and he was home schooled for secondary school before embarking on his farming career. He inherited in 1950 the farm which his family had bought in 1916, the year he was born, and farmed it till 1984, when he retired and his niece and her husband took over the stock side of the station, as farms are referred to in New Zealand.

Bob standing next to the Quercus rysophylla from Chipinque, December 2015 
© Jay Sorenson (click on images to enlarge)

He began planting trees on the station while he was still farming it, in the 1950s, and maples and poplars were an early interest (for “interest”, read 160 Acer taxa and probably the most complete collection of the hybrid poplar gene pool in New Zealand, c. 220 accessions). He soon noticed how well oaks grew on his farm and Quercus became a main focus of his collecting efforts. A key catalyst was the nearby Eastwoodhill Arboretum and the friendship with its creator Douglas Cook (see Oak News & Notes Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 8-9). Many of Hackfalls’ first oaks originated as acorns collected there or as gifts from Douglas. Bob joined the International Dendrology Society in 1977 after they visited Hackfalls, and it was through this institution that he first visited Mexico in 1981, on what was to be the first of six trips to the country, with acorn collection as the main objective. Subsequent trips involved hiring a driver or taxi and driving thousands of kilometers through the Mexican highlands, stopping by roadsides to collect acorns. In this way, Bob established a collection of some 50 different Mexican oaks, one of the top collections of these species worldwide.

During an IDS visit to Hackfalls in 2016, Nick Seymour presents Bob the first copy of the Hackfalls Arboretum Catalogue of Plant Collection
© Harriet Tupper

His attitude to trees was down to earth: “I don’t even hug trees,” he once declared in an interview, “my attitude is  entirely scientific and intellectual. I leave mysticism to others.” Taxonomy of Mexican oaks is a complex matter, but Bob’s considerable knowledge, based on the detailed study of a copy of Trelease’s The American Oaks (1924), allowed him to hold his own on the subject with professional botanists and specialists. He understood the importance for collections of diligent documentation: single-handedly he cataloged the vast plantations at Eastwoodhill in 1967, teaching himself to type in the process and studying German in order to use Krüssmann’s Manual of cultivated broad-leaved trees and shrubs as a reference. His catalogs of his own arboretum were exemplary, from handwritten lists as early as 1963, through typewritten sheets starting in 1972, to word processing files in the 90s. Aged 92, Bob converted all the records to the FileMaker Pro database system to allow inclusion of photographs and GPS locations. The catalog was published as CDs, on a website, and in 2016 as a handsome hardback book. Allen Coombes remarked on reviewing the 3-CD catalog in 2011: “This is one of the most complete and detailed listing of any collection that I have seen published and it is very useful . . . It should also serve as a guide to what other collections could be doing.”

Photo from the Hackfalls Catalogue showing leaves of Quercus sartorii wih 10 cm measuring strip. The caption reads as follows: "Q. sartorii Lieb. Mexico...wild seeds from Berry #8782 from El Paraiso, near Huauchinango, N Puebla, Mexico. Q. sartorii has recently been combined with Q. xalapensis under the latter name which seems odd as the first is annual fruited while the second is biennial  fruited. Also the acorns and leaves  of each differ in size and shape."

An early member of the IOS (1996), Bob attended the 1997 California Conference. An article he contributed to Oak News & Notes in 1999 is typical of his rigorous and independent approach to botanical matters. In it he questions the fact that two taxa (Quercus affinis f. subintegra (A.DC.) Trel., and Q. ocoteifolia Lieb.), of which he has observed living specimens that precisely match Trelease’s description, are no longer differentiated and are considered to be synonyms of other names. He received an IOS Lifetime Service Award in 2012, to add to his string of well-deserved recognitions, among others: Associate of Honour of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture (1991),  the Eastwoodhill Centennial Award (2010), and the Ronald Flook Award from the New Zealand Arboricultural Association (2011). In addition, Hackfalls Arboretum was designated as “a collection of outstanding merit” by the IDS in 2002.

Hackfalls includes a fine homestead garden, beautified in great measure by Lady Anne Berry, whom Bob married in 1990. Lady Anne had led the IDS visit to Hackfalls in 1977 that was to indirectly provide the impetus for the Mexican oak collection. A renowned gardener in the UK, she founded Rosemoor Garden in Devon, which she donated to the Royal Horticultural Society when she married Bob and moved to New Zealand.

A full tribute to Hackfalls Arboretum and to Bob Berry will be published in the 2020 issue of International Oaks.

Lady Anne and Bob Berry at the celebration of his 102nd birthday in June, 2018 © Liam Clayton

Further reading:

Cameron, R. The Oaks at Eastwoodhill. Oak News & Notes, IOS newsletter, Vol. 18, No. 2. 2014.

Chassé, B., In the Spotlight: Robert James Berry from Tiniroto, North Island, New Zealand. Oak News & Notes, IOS newsletter, Vol. 15, No. 1. 2011.

Coombes, A., The Hackfalls Catalogue. Oak News & Notes, IOS newsletter, Vol. 15, No. 1. 2011.

Jellyman, A., Profile of a Horticulturist: Bob Berry, Creator of Hackfalls Arboretum. New Zealand Garden Journal, Vol. 17(1). 2014.