For two decades, the gardens didn’t have a curator, but now a UW grad oversees the plant collections for the Center for Urban Horticulture and the Washington Park Arboretum.
THE UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON Botanic Gardens tied with three other schools for best college garden in the United States in 2015, as determined by Best Colleges Online. “We beat out Harvard!” exclaims new UWBG curator Ray Larson.
Yet this 230-acre green preserve on the shores of Lake Washington was without a curator for more than two decades. Director Sarah Reichard set that situation right recently by appointing Larson, a homegrown curator who is young, energetic, trained in horticulture and passionate about plants. Larson oversees the plant collections at the Center for Urban Horticulture and the Washington Park Arboretum.
Larson was a student at the Center for Urban Horticulture when I worked as a librarian there in the 1990s. I’ve long known him as a knowledgeable, hardworking guy with a great sense of humor and dedication. Perhaps because he grew up in Seattle, Larson deeply appreciates the deep green of the Arboretum’s Olmsted design. “The large native trees create the character of the place, and they’re something we’ll always preserve,” he says.
In the past 30 years, in response to global environmental losses and pressures, the Arboretum has stepped up its work in plant conservation. “We’re focusing on genetic diversity and sourcing plants from wild origin so we can preserve them,” Larson says. “Now we’re more like a zoo.”
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His education has prepared him for both the artistic and scientific sides of his job. He holds degrees in history and economics, with a minor in art history, plus a master’s in urban horticulture.
“The Arboretum is kind of like an art museum in that we’re always thinking about what needs to be in the collection, which plants fit into the educational and aesthetic goals,” says Larson. “Daily, we’re dealing with enhancing the visitor experience, but we always keep an eye on our scientific purpose of conservation.”
Larson faces a full slate of opportunities and challenges, including the three-headed hydra of arboretum management. The Arboretum Foundation is the primary fundraiser, managing volunteers who help with everything from weeding to plant sales. The City of Seattle owns the Arboretum property, and city crews deal with all the parklike functions, including maintaining roads and paths. The University of Washington owns and cares for the plants and manages the educational programs.
“It can be confusing; there are so many layers,” Larson says. “We always have to remember that the Arboretum is a city park, not only a botanic garden.”
The Arboretum’s ambitious “Pacific Connections” plan to build gardens representing various global climactic zones with latitudes similar to our own is well under way with the completion of the New Zealand garden. Larson is focusing on the new Arboretum loop trail, designed by the Berger Partnership and starting construction next spring.
“The new trail will be such a benefit for visitors, getting people into areas of the Arboretum they’ve never seen, encouraging people to visit in more seasons,” Larson says.
His team is busy growing plants to enhance the collections along the trail’s route.
When Larson stops in the Arboretum for his own enjoyment, where does he go first?
“I love the Winter Garden, also the Woodland Garden … and Rhododendron Glen,” he says. Perhaps because he’s a lifelong visitor, Larson is as fond of the historical parts of the Arboretum as he is of the conservation-based gardens that no doubt will be his curatorial legacy.