Bob Haller’s Plants of California botany class at UCSB is legendary. “Three giant projector screens side by side, a coordinated dissolve system, and hundreds of stunning images of native plants and their habitats, set to a range of contemporary and classical music,” recalled Mary Carroll of her first day in Botany 103. “By the end of the hour, students wanted to get out into the California field and see these sights for themselves.”
And get outside is exactly what his students did with Bob Haller, who joined the university faculty in 1957 after completing his PhD at UCLA. He took them on four-day field trips to the desert, Central Coast, and Sierra Nevada, sharing his outdoorsmanship — an expertise that began during camping trips and hikes with his parents while growing up in Santa Monica — and explaining the surrounding ecosystems. While these trips were unforgettable learning excursions, they were also part of Haller’s lifelong love of enjoying the natural world with others.
He was a noted expert on pines, contributing his research most significantly in Flora of the Four Corners Region and in the comprehensive Jepson Manual of native and naturalized California plants. “His observations and collections clarified the variations found among four different pine species which had puzzled botanists for the last century,” explained Bruce Reed, a horticulturist at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (SBBG). “His collections and notes span nearly 70 years, and his 5,000 annotated dried specimens from 300 different localities are now kept at the John Robert Haller Pine Collection at UCSB in the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration.” Haller and his wife, Dr. Nancy Vivrette, traveled from Canada to Guatemala and North Dakota, collecting what became baseline research and essential Pinus specimens over the decades.
Haller helped establish the University of California Natural Reserve System, which includes Carpinteria’s salt marsh and Santa Ynez Valley’s Sedgwick Reserve among the 39 natural areas, more than 750,000 acres, that hold almost all the state’s ecosystems for future research and education. He also collaborated in the creation of the first vegetation classification system in California.
Bob Haller inspired a generation of botanists, and he didn’t stop when he retired from UCSB in 1994. He spread his knowledge among the community at large as education botanist at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. There he reunited with Mary Carroll, who was the garden’s director of education, as well as many of his former students, including Steve Junak, Dr. Ed Schneider, Dr. Dieter Wilken, Sally Isaacson, Carol Bornstein, and Betsy Collins. It was like coming home.
Haller’s research and expertise in pines made him a natural partner for the garden’s collecting trips. Over the decades, Haller joined staff members such as Ralph Philbrick, Dara Emery, and Betsy Collins on these expeditions. In 2001, he was honored as a Local Hero by The Santa Barbara Independent in recognition of the way he raised the humble study of plants to an understanding of their place, and ours, in a changing world. Botanists were not the only ones inspired by Bob Haller. His enthusiasm for following one’s own passion influenced his students to become musicians, winemakers, and artists.
As an educational botanist, Haller was asked to create treks for the Botanic Garden that replicated his UCSB field trips, and they had similar effects on the participants. “Bob knew all the special places and would lead us to just the right spot for fabulous blooms or specific species,” recalled Joan Evans of the excitement of the trips. “He also knew a lot of people, which gave us access to areas that most do not get to see. As each day ended, Bob timed it so we would always be in some magical spot where we could watch the sunset.”
In 2005, Haller created an instant coffee-table classic when he and the garden’s Dr. Robert Muller and Avis Keedy updated a classic reference guide: The Trees of Santa Barbara. Published in hardcover by the SBBG, the beautiful exploration of Santa Barbara through its trees became wildly popular. When it was reissued in 2015 in paperback, Bob expressed satisfaction that the book could now leave coffee tables and get outdoors to be used. He wanted to see it on the front seat of cars with smudge prints, dog-eared pages, and leaves stuck in it.
A celebration of Bob Haller’s life and work will be held on Tuesday, December 6, 2-5 p.m., at the SBBG Pritzlaff Conservation Center, 1212 Mission Canyon Road. Haller’s photographs and field gear and remembrances from the botanists he inspired will be displayed; memories will be shared. Carpooling is strongly encouraged. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call (805) 682-4726 x102 to RSVP. The photography exhibit Bob Haller’s Plants of California will be on view at Pritzlaff on weekdays, December 7-March 17, 2017.