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Marc Cathey; Champion of Horticulture

H. Marc Cathey was director of the U.S. National Arboretum from 1981 to 1991.
H. Marc Cathey was director of the U.S. National Arboretum from 1981 to 1991. (American Horticultural Society)
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Henry Marcellus Cathey learned gardening at the knee of his grandmother, whom he called Miss Nannie. He recounted how she took a zinnia seed off a loaf of bread and showed him how to germinate it, which got him hooked on horticulture.

She would show him other propagation and gardening techniques, tending the soil in a long dress, a red frilled petticoat and high heels. Once, he asked her why she wore heels. "As I'm walking around, I'm aerating the soil," she replied.

As a teenager, Dr. Cathey was also interesting in painting, and he enrolled in Davidson College, a liberal arts college, but transferred to North Carolina State University to study the commercial greenhouse cultivation of flowers.

He received master's and doctorate degrees in horticulture at Cornell University. As a Fulbright scholar, he traveled to the Netherlands for a year and studied at the agricultural university in Wageningen.

In 1956, he came to work for the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville and participated in groundbreaking research on the effect of light on plant growth and flowering.

Recognizing that weather and climate patterns were changing and affecting gardening practices, he directed the redrawing of the Agriculture Department's plant hardiness zone map during his tenure at the arboretum. The map is used to determine which plants will survive in various regions of the country.

He also saw a need to track not only winter low temperatures' effects on plants, but also those of summer heat. He created a heat zone map and co-wrote the book "Heat Zone Gardening: How To Choose Plants That Thrive in Your Region's Warmest Weather" (1998).

Dr. Cathey had wide cultural interests besides gardening and art, but he was at his most passionate when preaching about the need for gardening in everyone's life.

Katy Moss Warner, Dr. Cathey's successor at the horticultural society, said his "belief that plants and gardens are critical to human well-being is reflected in his signature line: 'Green is the color of hope.' "


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