Marc Cathey; Champion of Horticulture

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2008

H. Marc Cathey, 79, former director of the U.S. National Arboretum and a flamboyant promoter of gardening everywhere, died Oct. 8 at a nursing home in his home town of Davidson, N.C. He had Parkinson's disease.

Tall, dapper, and with ties and handkerchiefs as colorful as his persona, Dr. Cathey gave hundreds of lectures during his career that combined scientific authority with sheer showmanship. He was sometimes called Dr. Purple, after his favorite hue.

Before the dawn of PowerPoint, he would extol the virtues of plants using multiple slide projectors, soundtracks and, on occasion, smoke machines, confetti and other special effects.

"He got people wowed up because of his ability to tell stories and to bring life and drama to everything," said Holly Shimizu, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden. "There was no one else like him in horticulture."

Dr. Cathey was arboretum director from 1981 to 1991, a time of growth at the botanical garden and research facility in Northeast Washington.

He oversaw the expansion of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum; the creation of the National Capitol Columns garden; and the New American Garden, a demonstration garden of perennials and grasses designed by landscape architects Oehme, van Sweden and Associates at Dr. Cathey's bidding.

His tenure also marked a period when gardening was undergoing a dynamic shift toward a more natural style, and Dr. Cathey became a leading voice in the movement toward greater use of perennials and ornamental grasses.

He coined the phrase "tough plants for tough times" to convey the need for lower-maintenance landscapes that were kinder to the environment than the former lawn- and chemical-dominated model.

After leaving the arboretum, he was president of the Alexandria-based American Horticultural Society from 1993 to 1997. He retired as the society's president emeritus in 2005, when he and his wife, Mary, returned to North Carolina from Silver Spring.

Besides his wife of 50 years, Dr. Cathey is survived by two children, Marcy E. Cathey of Bowie and Henry M. Cathey Jr. of Chincoteague, Va.; and four granddaughters.

In spite of five decades living and working in the Washington area, Dr. Cathey never lost his lilting Tarheel voice, which became familiar to countless radio listeners over the years.

He had a weekend radio show on WWRC-AM for more than a decade until 1994 and later became a regular guest on public radio locally. He also appeared on NBC's "Today" show and ABC's "Good Morning America."

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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