Writer’s note: So many people in this community do not see all of the history that Rancho Santa Fe holds. Many of its residents have lived here for decades and have stories to tell. As a young person, I’ve always been intrigued by the generations that have come before me and what they have to offer. I am writing this column to help spread the stories of our community’s long-time residents.By Chris Rellas, TPHS senior
To the untrained eye, succulents may seem simple and almost lifeless; the mark of a sweltering desert. But to RSF’s Shirley Berry, the water-retaining plants open up a world of wonder, a world often under-appreciated by others.
“If you look at a rose bush, you appreciate it because of its flowers, but it has no real form. But cacti and other succulents are beautiful in their shape,” Berry said. And one glance at her backyard could easily attest to her claim. Filled with potted succulents and a sizable greenhouse, her yard is a haven for the spiney plants. Unlike the manicured lawns of many of the homes in the area, Berry’s house is a testament to the wilderness, a silent nod of respect to nature.
“When we moved here, it was absolutely stark and we loved it,” she says as she talks about herself and her late husband. “He only loved plants because I loved them. He was just a good person and very loved in the community.”
As she walks around her yard, Berry is able to describe every plant in detail, discussing their name, where they are from and simultaneously pulling fallen leaves out of their prickly stems. She is not only appreciative of the beauty of succulents, but also remarkably well-read in the subject. She is sharp, resourceful, and always ready to relate her artistry in the garden with the happenings of the outside world. She knows when her plants need less sun, more water or to be planted in a larger pot. But she also understands nature and the role people play in it.
After she checks on her plants, she walks beneath a large pine tree and refills a water bowl she sets out for the squirrels, birds, and other animals that pass through her yard every day. “The other very important factor in my life is my appreciation of animals. I’m in constant wonder and delight. In fact, I can’t imagine a home without an animal,” she says, as she sits in her living room, her two siamese cats circling below the couch. To her, and the wildlife that visits her yard, her home is a sanctuary, a peaceful and uninterrupted place to go. Even her plants seem to be at peace, alive and well despite the intense heat. And with every new factoid or story, it seems as if Berry is an expert in the field.
But her interests did not spur from professional desires. An art teacher by profession, Berry spent a good portion of her life as head of the Newport Harbor High School art department, a position that allowed her to spread her love of painting to young people. “Art is a great avenue for exposing your reactions to life around you and how it affects you.” As she aged, though, painting became harder and harder for her. And so, her plants became her new art form; a way for her to continue painting landscapes. “The forms of plants are so beautiful,” she says. “They are a great sculptural form. And when you put plants together, it’s how they complement each other.” And her plants are just that. With special care, she views them as sculptures, carefully pruning them and making sure that they are growing in the right direction.
Her love for plants has not, however, been limited to her backyard. Long active in the RSF Garden Club, she is a member of the San Diego, Palomar, British, and African Cactus and Succulent Societies, as well as a winner of multiple succulent sweepstakes and shows. Now, though, she says that she has cut her succulent collection down. A yard that used to house thousands of succulents is now home to only a fraction of the plants she used to care for. She even parted with half of her succulent book collection. Still, her cabinets are filled with neatly-marked reference books, magazines, and slides, a testament to her knowledge of and passion for plants. “Find something you love to do,” she says. “And that will lead you to success.”