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California botanist Robert Ornduff, former director of UC Botanical Garden and UC Berkeley professor, dies at 68
03 Oct 2000

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Berkeley - Botanist Robert Ornduff, an expert on California plants and former director of the University of California, Berkeley's Botanical Garden, died Sept. 22 at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley from complications of metastatic melanoma.

OrnduffOrnduff, a professor emeritus of integrative biology in the College of Letters & Science at UC Berkeley, was 68.

Ornduff was a field biologist who concentrated on California native plants as well as plants that grow in similar Mediterranean climates, such as in South Africa and Western Australia. His book, "Introduction to California Plant Life" (UC Press, 1974), is still in print and is a popular layman's field guide to one of the most varied floras in the world. He also was a longtime member of the California Native Plant Society and served as editorial advisor for its publication, Fremontia, for 27 years.

"Bob was a very, very caring person and a great teacher who deeply loved and appreciated plants," said Peter Raven, his friend for the past 45 years and director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, an organization dedicated to the study and conservation of the floras of the New World. "This came through in one of his biggest contributions, which was turning the UC Botanical Garden into a world-class garden and a leading place for studying and displaying the unique variety of California plants."

Ornduff directed the garden from 1973 until 1991, expanding its plant collection to include specimens from areas like South Africa and Chile that have similar Mediterranean climates. He was particularly proud of the docent program he instituted while there, said Phyllis Faber, co-editor with Ornduff of the Natural History Series at University of California Press.

During his 48-year career, Ornduff wrote more than 100 scientific papers and 50 other papers on horticultural and related topics. His interests ranged from the giant sequoias of the Sierra Nevada to the small but showy yellow flower called goldfields that carpet California's Central Valley in the spring.

"Bob was one of the treasures of the botanical world," said Arthur Kruckeberg, professor emeritus of botany at the University of Washington, Seattle, and one of Ornduff's mentors. "He was a greenthumb botanist who delighted in growing plants and disseminating his interest to the general public."

Among his abiding interests, however, were the unusual reproductive strategies of plants and how they evolved. After encountering early in his career a peculiar fall-blooming California plant called Jepsonia, he got interested in heterostyly, a peculiarity of some plants where a single species develops two or three different types of flowers that encourage outcrossing and discourage self-pollination.

He also was fascinated by the plants that evolved to inhabit small islands - essentially rocks frequented by birds - that he referred to as guano islands, Kruckeberg said.

Born in Portland, Oregon, on June 13, 1932, Ornduff attended Reed College, graduating in 1953 with a BA in biology. As a Fulbright Scholar, he spent the next year in New Zealand, where he collected material for his thesis. He completed his MSc at the University of Washington in 1956 and his PhD at UC Berkeley in 1961.

After a year teaching biology at Reed College and a year at Duke University, he returned to UC Berkeley in 1963 to assume the faculty position of his retiring major professor, Herbert Mason. Ornduff retired in 1993.

As a botany professor, he instituted a popular course on California flora that he taught for 30 years. The notes and experiences teaching this course resulted in his book on California's plant life. He also wrote two chapters for a recent book, "California's Wild Gardens: A Living Legacy," edited by Faber and published by the California Native Plant Society.

His other positions while at UC Berkeley included curator of seed plants and, eventually, director from 1967 to 1982 of the University Herbarium; director of the Jepson Herbarium, a repository for California plants, from 1968 to 1982; chair of the Department of Botany from 1986 until 1989, when the department was reorganized into the Department of Integrative Biology; and executive director of the Miller Institute at UC Berkeley from 1984 to 1987.

Ornduff was involved with many plant and plant conservation organizations. In addition to being a fellow of the California Native Plant Society, at the time of his death he was a member of the board of councilors of the Save-the-Redwoods League, the board of directors of the Pacific Horticultural Foundation and the board of trustees of the Center for Plant Conservation, a national organization dedicated to preserving rare and endangered plants of the United States. He also served as president of the California Botanical Society in 1981-82, and was a long-time trustee of UC Berkeley's Jepson Herbarium.

For the past eight years, he was grants director of The Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust, which funds research and education in horticulture. Ornduff redirected the trust's grants towards small gardens and publication projects both in the United States and abroad.

He also served as president of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists in 1975 and chaired the editorial committee of UC Press from 1975 to 1989.

Among his honors were an Award of Merit from the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta (1993), a Merit Award from the Botanical Society of America (1993) and the F. Owen Pearce Award of Horticulture from the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco (1994).

Ornduff, a resident of Berkeley, is survived by a sister, Anne Vial, of Lake Oswego, Oregon.