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Written by Dave Gs • March 15 Kathleen Meserve – the Holly Lady

Plant breeding is one of the few areas where amateur, hobby gardeners have made at least as much of a contribution to the plants we grow as professionals – and sometimes even more. For all their training and skills, professional breeders often don’t have the single-minded passion of people like Kathleen Meserve, a keen gardeners untrained in botany, but who single-handed transformed the growing of holly in the northeast. She relished the fact that she had outdone the pros, and her work shows just what one person can achieve, if they put their mind to it.

The Start of a Passion

Life is full of chances, and once chance leads to another, if we are open to change. It was pure chance that one day around 1950 Kathleen Kellogg Meserve decided to attend the garden club lecture in her new home town – St. James, Long Island. The little hamlet had been a popular place in the Roaring 20s for famous artists like John Barrymore, Myrna Loy, Buster Keaton, and Irving Berlin to spend the summer, but Kathleen and her husband were probably just escaping the bustle of Manhattan. Her private life is largely unknown, but the 10-acre estate her husband had bought with his oil-wealth gave her plenty of opportunity to enjoy gardening. She was born in Manhattan, and attended Miss Chandor’s School, with other young women and future debutantes of the elite New York society circles.

She enthusiastically joined the local garden club in St. James, surely as much for the society as for the gardens. That fateful lecture was about holly, which at that time was even more widely used at Christmas for decorations than they are today – and of course never in plastic. The English holly, Ilex aquifolium, was all that was grown, and for the holidays large amounts were shipped in from the northwest, where it grew well. Kathleen admired the dark-green glossy foliage and the bright red berries, but soon discovered that growing it in her own garden was not going to be easy – the cold winters were just too much for it.

The Breeding Begins

Kathleen must have had a mentor who explained the principles of cross-pollinating flowers, or perhaps she found it in books or articles. She had chosen a relatively easy plant to work with, since holly bushes have separate male and female trees. So without insects around to transfer the pollen, it was easy for her to do it by hand, almost certainly using the camel-hair artist’s brush that was used by all plant breeders. A little practice learning to sex a tree by the appearance of its flowers, and she was all set to go.

The only thing was, where to start? If the problem was that English holly wasn’t cold-hardy enough, so finding hollies that were would be a good place to begin. She built up a collection of different species from around the world. One of them was a small, low-growing bush that grew in northern Japan and the chilly islands of the east coast of Russia, called Ilex rugosa. It was small, the leaves were a unappealing dirty bluish-green, but it withstood the Long Island winters without so much as a scorched leaf. It is listed as hardy in zone 3, which is remarkable for an evergreen holly.

Not knowing what would happen, Kathleen took pollen from some male European holly bushes and pollinated her plants of Ilex rugosa. She collected the ripe berries, and sowed the seeds. With 10 acres she had plenty of room to grow them in rows, and she also had another property in Shiloh, New Jersey. After a few years she could see what had happened.

Something New and Special

Among the seedlings several stood out, with good cold resistance, and some had abundant berries. They all had purple-stems and unusually dark foliage, giving them a bluish look, so she christened them ‘Blue Hollies’. At that time it was still fairly normal, especially for amateur breeders, to simply name and register a new variety with a suitable body – in this case the Holly Society of America – and make the plants available to everyone. But Kathleen Meserve did something that was novel for the time – she applied for a plant patent. Although available since 1930, when she received her first patents in 1964 it was only number 2,434. Today, in comparison, over 32,000 patents for plants have been granted. Back then the patents didn’t give the plant a variety name, but that first one became ‘Blue Girl’. She also smartly included a suitable male tree, knowing they are needed for berries. The first one was ‘Blue Boy’. A decade later they were replaced by superior varieties called ‘Blue Prince’ and ‘Blue Princess’ (shown above). These remain the best of the Blue Hollies today, although other interesting plants have been added over the years.

The Blue Hollies

As a group these plants are attractive upright evergreens, growing 8 to 15 feet tall in milder zones, but less at the limits of their hardiness, in zone 5. They will also grow in zone 4, but may suffer some winter damage, and generally remain low. The stems are a striking purplish-green color, and the leaves have a typical holly look, being leathery, glossy and studded around the edges with sharp spines. ‘Blue Princess’ is particularly prolific with berries, usually carrying a bold, heavy crop in most areas. For good crops you need to plant a ‘Blue Prince’ as well, but one male with pollinate at least 7 females, and perhaps 10, so for a hedge you just need to scatter a few along the length, between female bushes, for a bold berry-studded hedge to develop. Often these are sold growing in a single pot, which is great if you just want one bush.

Other varieties followed, and a popular pair are China Girl® and China Boy®, from around 1980. By this time she had also realized that patents expire, but trademarks live forever, so these are trademark names. The patent and scientific names are ‘Mesog’ and ‘Mesdob’. These two have greener leaves, closer to the look of the English holly.

Never Say Never

Kathleen Meserve lived a long and productive life.  So productive that for a time she held more plant patents than any other individual. This caught the attention of the US Plant Patent Office, who honored her at the celebrations of 50th anniversary of the Plant Patent Law. She died in 1999, aged 94, and her last patent had been granted that year, for `Centennial Girl`. They even kept coming after here death, with Yule Brite® (`Conayule`) being patented by her estate in 2005. Already certainly given a leg-up the ladder of success by wealth and privilege, that doesn’t stop us recognizing here dedicated to her holly trees, or her achievements. Plant breeding has usually been a male pursuit, but Kathleen Meserve showed us that it doesn’t have to be that way.