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BAKER, Raymond F.


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Raymond F. Baker


by Jacob Knecht

Berkeley, California

(Reproduced from PALMS Volume 55(1) 2011 - copyright).

It is with great sadness that we report the loss of Raymond F. Baker, who died on 29 November 2010 of respiratory failure after a five-year batt le with pulmonary fibrosis. He dedicated 38 years of his life to the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum and is chiefly responsible for creating its world-class palm collection of more than 800 species. Ray was driven to increase the diversity of plants at the Lyon and was passionate about making it accessible to the community.

Ray was born in September 1945 in Passaic, New Jersey. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a BS in Geology after which he enlisted in the US Marine Corps, eventually bec oming a Captain. Afte rreturning from service in Vietnam, he was based in Kane’ohe, Hawai’i, for two years. It was there that his interest in plants blossomed. After six years in the Marines he resigned his commission and entered graduate school at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. He took a job as a helper at Lyon Arboretum, the only university botanical garden located in a tropical rainforest in the United States, and quickly became deeply enamored with it. Because Ray wanted a fulltime position at th Arboretum so badly, he prolonged his graduate studies for seven years until there was a job opening.

Seated in 194 acres of wet tropical rainforest spread over challenging terrain with an average rainfall of 4190 mm (165 inches), Lyon Arboretum is a unique and exacting place in which to work. Working in the forest is far from glamorous or leisurely. Ray took the rugged terrain, voracious mosquitoes and frequent rainfall all in his stride. Though the weeds at Lyon are truly a force to be reckoned with, Ray never gave up against the constant and overwhelming onslaught. During much of his tenure there he worked ten-hour days, seven days a week. He inspired Arboretum staff and colleagues by his constant, steadfast nature. No matter how bad he may have felt on any one day, one would never have known from his attitude. He seemed to see the good side of all things, especially in the face of unexpected setbacks.

Ray came to memorize the exact location and even the accession number of each plant in the Arboretum, thus becoming intimately acquainted with over 5000 species. He studied their morphology and phenology, sharing his findings wit researchers around the world. He was fascinated by botanical diversity and was unceasingly curious to learn new things about plants. Ray was an invaluable resource to researchers, making himself available to accompany visiting scientists and was very generous with material and data. He had a talent for facilitating the movement of information and strengthening the ties among botanists, horticulturists and members of the community at large. Ray also designed much of the network of trails and pathways to make the collections more accessible to visitors, and chose the location of each new plant with an artist’s eye.

One of Ray’s great loves was palms. His goal was to have all the palm taxa represented, and today the Arboretum holds approximately 167 genera and 801 species. He personally collected 34 different accessions of palms from the wild, from Costa Rica, Ecuador and Venezuela, and worked with Bob Hirano to bring in many more. Ray cultivated relationships of trust and reciprocity with commercial palm growers and seed collectors such Jeff Marcus, Rolf Kyburz and De Armand Hull, resulting in the addition of over 700 accessions to the Arboretum. With Ray as the driving force, Lyon Arboretum staff became heavily involved in the IPS Seed Bank in the early 1990s. Thousands of seeds were collected from Lyon’s mature fruiting trees, cleaned, and shipped around the world. As fruit of this participation 133 more palm accessions were integrated into the garden. In 2009, Don Hodel named Pritchardia bakeri, a species from the Ko’olau Mountains on O’ahu, to honor Ray.

Ray served on the Boards of both the International Palm Society and Heliconia Society International (HSI). He was a founding member of HSI in 1985 and worked to make the Arboretum a major repository in Hawai’i for most of the world’s species from this group (the Zingiberales). His intensive work with this group helped him become and international expert on Zingiberales. He also worked closely with other botanists to care for and study the many accessions of rare and endangered gingers brought to the Arboretum.

Education was very important to Ray. He was always willing to reach out to individuals and help them identify palms. He began teaching classes on palms, gingers, heliconias, aroids, and Ficus at Lyon as early as 1982 and continued doing so until 2010. He also led many upper-Arboretum hikes for visitors. He organized the activities for volunteers and community groups at Lyon and spent weekends workin with them to chip away at the herbaceous and woody weeds. His knowledge and supervision was essential when it came to making sure that less knowledgeable volunteers did not unwittingly pull up or chop down rare plants.

Ray’s deteriorating health forced him to retire in September 2010. That same month it was announced that he had taken the extraordinary decision to create a fund to support the grounds and living collections of the Arboretum with a gift of $50,000 to start. Ray leaves an incredible legacy in what he cultivated and in the countless lives that he has inspired through his work, but with this generous endowment his dedication to the collections is immortalized. It is hard to imagine how a person like Ray could have been any more dedicated to and deeply invested in a cause. Ray’s ashes were deposited at the buttressed base of his favorite Ficus variegata at the arboretum. In the words of his wife Joyce, “His spirit lives on in all the plantings, all the rocks and streams, in the very air of his beloved Arboretum.” We will miss you, Ray.

Contributions to the Ray Baker Fund at Lyon Arboretum can be made in two ways. Funds for immediate needs can be made at: www.uhfoundation.org/RayBaker. Funds in support of the permanent endowment can be made at: www.uhfoundation.org/RayBaker Endowed. For further information, please contact Emily Fay at the University of Hawai’i Foundation (808) 956-5665 or e-mail emily.fay@uhfoundation.org.

The author thanks Joyce Baker, Liz Huppman, Karen Shigematsu, David Orr, David Lorence and John Mood for their help in composing this obituary.

Leilani Estates, 25 mls/40 km south of Hilo, Big Island of Hawai'i. Elevation 880 ft/270 m. Average rainfall 140 inches/3550 mm


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  • 7 years later...

Has it been almost 10 years since Ray left us?  Wow, miss going to Lyons and talking with him..


Born in the Bronx

Raised in Brooklyn

Matured In Wai`anae

I can't be held responsible for anything I say or do....LOL

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  • 6 months later...

may he rest in peace

Edited by climate change virginia

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

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I can't believe it's been ten years. Ray was a wonderful guy, perfectly eccentric and with a wry sense of humor. I first met him in person in 1987 on a trip to Hawai'i, where I would go every day to spend time with Ray and Bob up in their magical little science-shack at the foot of that marvelous piece of nature in Manoa. In those days they had a greenhouse full of exotic palms that were certified for export (a mini Floribunda operated under the auspieces of UH), and I had already been in touch with Ray via phone for some time (we had no email in those days!) as I was like a kid in a candy store ordering Verschaffeltia, Balaka, et al. to test at my rented Hollywood Hills diggs. On that first trip I would leave the "shack" and head up on the path, get rained on, try to stay out of the way of the falling Roystonea leaves, and marvel at the same tree that Ray would ultimately have as a final resting place. He was a true fount of knowledge, and tremendously inspiring to me, and temperamentally quite the counterpoint of Bob Hirano, an equally nice and knowledgeable, if rather reserved, fellow who was always poring over his thousands of beautiful slides at a light-table while I chatted endlessly about palms with Ray. A couple of years later, when I was living in Honolulu, I would go up when I could break away from work or on the weekends, catching up with what was going on in the garden. I had been gone from Hawai'i for about 17 years when I contacted Ray in 2007, as I was in the islands for a Thanksgiving trip with family, and he invited me up to Manoa to catch up. I had become involved with the HSI as well as IPS, both of which he was very much a part of, so we had a lot to talk about. It was fun to see him and to see the garden again. He was always the anchor for that magical little valley kingdom. When I heard he had passed away just three short years later, I felt gut-punched. And I know that many others in the world of horticulture and the plant sciences feel the same way, as he was much loved and admired by those who knew him and worked with him. I will always hold the image of Ray with his tremendous 'stache, garbed in his khakis, machete in hand, heading up the path into the valley..."time to cut the vines off the palms!"...and off he would go, disappearing into the depths of the jungle.

Michael Norell

Rancho Mirage, California | 33°44' N 116°25' W | 293 ft | z10a | avg Jan 44/70F | Jul 78/108F avg | Weather Station KCARANCH310

previously Big Pine Key, Florida | 24°40' N 81°21' W | 4.5 ft. | z12a | Calcareous substrate | avg annual min. approx 52F | avg Jan 65/75F | Jul 83/90 | extreme min approx 41F

previously Natchez, Mississippi | 31°33' N 91°24' W | 220 ft.| z9a | Downtown/river-adjacent | Loess substrate | avg annual min. 23F | Jan 43/61F | Jul 73/93F | extreme min 2.5F (1899)

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