December 14, 2010

Holly By Golly

Nothing says Christmas like red berried holly.  You can let the snow do the decorating outside and it's all good --- deepest shiniest green, brilliant pops of red, and a stiff, formal structure that is noble looking out there in the cold garden.

English hollies created the classic image of holiday greenery, but we can't grow them here.  We grow smaller, hardier ones that fit our small yards and New England climate.  We have these iconic evergreen Christmas hollies here solely because of one woman.  I love her story.  

A story?   It's Christmas!  Yes, tell us a story --- improbable, mythic, heartwarming and seasonal --- maybe a fantasy?

Okay.  Get me a cookie, come over here, and I'll tell you about Kathleen Kellogg Meserve.

Ilex x. meserveae are the hybrid hollies that are named for a housewife who never studied botany.  Kathleen Meserve bred them on her kitchen window sill in the 1950s as a garden club hobby, and went on to patent one of the most popular and successful cultivar lines in horticulture.  If you live anywhere colder than zone 7, when you go to the nursery and buy an evergreen holly for your foundation plantings or your mixed border, it is typically a blue holly, a "meserve" holly.
Mrs. Meserve, looking rather patrician (NY Times)  She died in 1999 at age 93.

The myth is that she was a humble unschooled gardener like me, discovering gardening late in life, like me, and gardening on a budget like me.  The reality is that she came from a privileged background and had a 10 acre estate on Long Island, in St. James, New York, to experiment in.  But the improbable wonder of the story is all true: she really was a complete amateur and she really did stumble onto a great horticultural discovery.

Here's the story of Kathleen Meserve.  I quote this from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture:

"Meserve grew up on Park Avenue in New York City where plants simply were not in her universe. She and thousands of others were introduced to plants during World War II when the Victory Garden program was started by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to encourage homeowners to grow their own vegetables to save commercial resources for the war effort.

After the war, the Meserves moved to a new shaded estate a few miles from their old home. The new garden was unsuited for vegetables so she cast about for a new plant to occupy her awakened interest in gardening. At a garden club meeting, she became acquainted with hollies and was soon collecting all of the sorts available from local nurseries.
Ilex aquifolium, English holly.  They grow to be big things.  photo from U. of Wisconsin LaCrosse
Her breeding efforts were spurred by an interest in developing a dwarf form of evergreen holly with red berries that was not too large for use in foundation plantings. The red berried hollies of her acquaintance --- the English, Chinese and American hollies were all trees that grew 20 feet or more high and wide and required constant shearing to use in the landscape. She managed to obtain seeds of Ilex rugosa, a dwarf evergreen holly of northern Japan and Korea that had red berries. Her breeding efforts began in the early 1950s.
Ilex rugosa, or Prostrate holly --- a rangy, low spreader

Many of her crosses succeeded and seed developed. She planted the seeds and two years later had seedlings from the crosses. 

Then, disaster struck. The winter of 1956 was colder than most, with temperatures dropping to minus 17 degrees.

Upon inspecting her crosses in the spring, she realized most of her seedlings had died, except for the plants that had Ilex rugosa as a parent. These were planted on the grounds and watched for a few years. During the early years of the 60s, she worked with several nurseries trying to get her new creations as Luther Burbank* would have called them into the marketplace. Finally Connard-Pyle, the nursery that gave us the Peace hybrid tea rose, introduced the plants in 1964.

"Blue Girl" and "Blue Boy" were the first introductions but were followed in 1972 by their children, "Blue Princess" and "Blue Prince," created by crossing the original hybrid back to the Ilex rugosa parent.

The 1972 crosses were even more cold hardy than the parents and more compact.
Meserve went on to release about a dozen hybrid hollies and was awarded a citation by the American Horticulture Society for her efforts as an amateur plant breeder."

Ilex x. meserveae 'Blue Princess' in my garden
She died in 1999.  Her plants are now sold by commercial growers throughout the world. The profits from the sale of Mrs. Meserve's holly patents helped to maintain her estate on Long Island, which she called Holly-by-Golly.

Holly-by-Golly?  I love it.  She looks like crusty old money in the photo above, but she evidently had a wonderfully tacky streak.

Here are some of her words:
"A professor from a leading university with a strong graduate horticulture program visited me once," she told an interviewer.  "He told me that he was amazed at how his school spent thousands of dollars in research hoping to come up with a new strain, but that here I did it on $15.  Not knowing what I was doing was an advantage," she said.  "Especially at the beginning.  I didn't know what could be done and what couldn't.  So I just did it."

And that's the fantasy of it all.  Don't we all secretly harbor a dream that we will spend $15 on supplies, plant some seeds, and go on to create a botanical wonder that generates fame for us and lasting funds for our heirs?  I do, by golly.

* You've heard of Luther Burbank, right?  The Plant Patent Act was passed in 1930 as a result of his botanical work.  It's what allows breeders to profit from crossing plants to create new cultivars. It allowed an amateur gardener like Mrs. Meserve to make a fortune from her hobby.


  1. What an interesting story! She sounds like the kind of person you'd love to spend the day with, talking gardening.

  2. She sounds like my kind of gardener. Sometimes it is fortunate not to know the rules. I was not aware of this great story. Do you have something on the window sill that we should know about??

  3. Terrific post, and now you have stoked my fantasies! I love hollies and have admired ilex meserveae. They are occasionally seen them in nurseries here, though really we are too far south to grow them successfully. They are beautiful plants, and you are fortunate you can grow them.

  4. I hadn't heard this story before. Very interesting! It should be told to gardeners every Christmas. :)

  5. Cyndy, yes, I would have loved to meet Kathleen (and see her 10 acres of gardens. Somewhere I read her estate is a museum, but I couldn't find any more about it.)

    Lisa, nothing growing on my window sill! Mostly I am crossing and propagating new strains of aggressive weeds out in my yard.

    Deborah, thanks! You have the Southern hollies which are nice too. Ilex is a pretty wide and versatile group I have found.

    Sweebay, it did seem like the perfect story for Christmas.

  6. what a wonderful story. I love knowing the people behind the plant and this is better than many fairy tales.

  7. Fascinating story, Laurrie! I, too, have a lot in common with Mrs. Meserve...except for being rich:) But how neat to think that a complete amateur could have bred such a popular plant.

  8. Pat, thanks! I do enjoy finding out about the people behind the plants we buy.

    Rose, don't you wonder if a complete amateur could breed such a success in today's gardening world?

  9. I read a few lines of her story as I was researching the holly I want to add to the border, but your story is much more complete. What a cool lady! Now I'm even more excited about planting a holly! Hooray!! :o)

  10. i grew up as a young boy in her neighborhood.the name had magic to it.i would give anything to find her hardy hollys,as i live in maine now,but her place,and childhood memories have come flooding back!

  11. She was a great friend of my family and I don't think there was anything at all tacky about her, but if you mean she had a her own unique flair, I agree with that. She was a wonderful woman.


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