Prophetic, Accomplished, Eloquent, Cathey Was a Giant in the World of Horticulture

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, November 8, 2008

Henry Marcellus Cathey, who died on Oct. 8 at age 79, was a brilliant plant scientist who understood the world of horticulture far beyond the boundaries that his doctoral degree and study as a Fulbright Scholar offered.

And Marc, as he preferred to be known, spent a lifetime unselfishly sharing his information with amateurs and professionals.

He was one of the most eloquent and interesting speakers on the subject of plants and their environments. Some of my earliest influences as a landscape professional stemmed from Marc's philosophies and worldviews.

Almost 40 years before "green" was the state-of-the-art terminology to define practices considered environmentally friendly, Marc was writing about them. He would say, "Green is the color of hope, and in the color of plants is our hope for the future."

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plant Science Research Division, where he was leader of ornamental investigations, he wrote several articles for the 1972 Yearbook of Agriculture. The subject that year was "Landscape for Living." One of his articles that caught my eye was "Plants in the Living Environment to Lift the Spirit of Man." He was a visionary.

Marc wrote: "We have pushed out of production some of the land best suited for plant growth, sealed it over with layers of asphalt and concrete. We have created vast areas of living space for man where plants need help to survive." The way we learn to help, according to Marc, is by passing information from one generation to another.

He was prophetic. "With the pressures of a growing population, the patterns of living in the '70s have used millions of acres of land a year to make room for new homes, shops and roads," he wrote. "Much of this land was formerly used for producing food and was located near cities. This land is now permanently lost from recycling our environment."

He was director of the National Arboretum beginning in 1981, and in the 10 years he served in that position, he brought new gardens and exhibits to the arboretum, including the National Capitol Columns, Asian Valley, Friendship Garden and sustainable gardens. He also oversaw the expansion of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. He was instrumental in the creation of a revamped and much-improved Agriculture Department Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

As serious as Marc was about his research at the garden, he thoroughly enjoyed entertaining people and creating an enthusiasm in them about plants. People who attended his lectures would come back for more.

On occasion, I would stop by his office for a visit. If he was working on a talk, he would try out new props or ideas. Once he held up a pair of theatrical masks and explained his idea that he would launch into one of his lectures wearing a mask. He would use humorous metaphors to illustrate horticultural practices, and he loved using movies as examples.

Once my wife and I sat with him at a reception at the American Horticultural Society. After the reception, he implored us to see the movie "The Matrix." He considered it to be one of the most energetic, cutting-edge films of our time.

Marc worked in horticulture with this same attitude. He understood the part future technology would play in horticulture and never doubted that each discovery was right around the corner.

When bioengineering and tissue culture were new, Marc embraced them. He advised that skills of many kinds of scientists must be combined to create the information that would be needed to maintain plants in the urban environment.

He oversaw the successful introduction of numerous new hybrids developed by other brilliant National Arboretum scientists, such as Frank S. Santamour Jr., William L. Ackerman and Donald Egolf.

Then Marc became president of the American Horticultural Society and began to communicate with more homeowners. These were the people he was most excited about getting involved with flowers and the beauty that they bring to the world. He helped develop the society's Heat Zone Map before serving as president emeritus of the organization until 2005.

He loved to share his knowledge with homeowners. His advice to ameliorate erosion was for home gardeners to understand that the goal was to solve problems, not to get upset with the builders who caused them.

Tough plants and low maintenance were favorite themes. And, tough ground covers are good plants for low maintenance. Low-growing plants can solve a lot of issues. They can cover bare spots, prevent erosion, serve as barriers to pedestrians and unify plantings that could otherwise cause confusion. Some of the plants he recommended were low-growing juniper, willowleaf cotoneaster, low-growing forsythia, St. Johns wort ( Hypericum calycinum), candytuft, common coralberry ( Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) and creeping thyme.

"Always keep the names of several plants in your hip pocket," Marc confided in me during a conversation after one of his phenomenal presentations. "The people want names of plants they can get for their properties, and I don't want to discourage that."

For low-maintenance shrubs, he recommended witch hazel, kerria, glossy abelia, crape myrtle, cornelian cherry, serviceberry, deutzia, redbud and others.

I met Marc in his office at the National Arboretum in 1984, when he offered to review a book I had recently written. I was thrilled to be meeting the man whose writings I had read so often a dozen or more years earlier. He was most gracious and offered his time and a thoughtful comment about the book. We visited for a time, and I feel that had I not had the privilege of meeting with him on that day, I might not have made the career change of my life. He inspired me to move forward with my writing.

He invited me onto his radio show in the 1980s on WWRC to answer questions about landscape design. After he left, I hosted "The Garden Show" for several years.

He won numerous awards and honors from a broad spectrum of national and international horticultural and floricultural organizations. He would speak to standing-room-only crowds. They would come to hear him speak in his Carolina drawl, telling cute stories about his grandchildren (Miss Pink, Miss Peach, Miss Emerald and Miss Ruby) as much as for the horticultural storehouse of knowledge he offered to friends or enthusiasts of gardening.

His approach was disarming, so it was not possible to appreciate his understanding of plant science until he began his presentations. Then you would realize that there was little that this man didn't understand about trees, shrubs, perennials and bedding plants, and we are all richer because he was thrilled to share his passion with us.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site,

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