Kathleen Messerve, temporarily free from her kitchen stud farm (as she calls it), said she never dreamed she would be guest of the commissioner of patents and considered it rather an honor.
The U.S. Patent Office observed its 50th anniversary over the weekend, and its interests and scope are so far-flung as to be shapeless, so possibly Kathleen Messerve is an ideal representative of American invention. She patented holly trees, varieties she raised from seed.
Unlike Rube Goldberg and other important scientists, Messerve did not know doodly beans about the field she is now an ultimate authority in.
"Grew up in New York City," she said, and although she knew there were plants -- after all, orchids and string beans have to come from somewhere -- she had always kept her distance from the jungle.
She married F. Leighton Messerve, a stockbroker who has since died, and found herself in the wilds of Long Island in 1942. The name rimes with "reserve."
"We rented the place," she said, "and the owner said do anything you want except bring a cow in the dining room."
As it happened, the restriction did not upset Kathleen Messerve, but the growing of vegetables for food did. Like all other beginners, however, she set to with enthusiasm and (without going into trifling hazards and disappointments) was soon growing every blasted vegetable the family ate. "I was forever canning and preserving," she said.
But World War II ended and she dropped without vegetables without great regret, and as fate would have it attended a lecture on hollies. Those red-berried spiny things you see at Christmas.
It had never occurred to her, she said, that there was anything interesting about them. But the lecture opened her eyes, and she joined the American Holly Society as innocent as a naked newborn babe.
Now as garden plants go, holly ranks far down the list of plants that gardeners kill for. Irises, it is generally believed, produce the severest cases, followed by hemerocallis, peonies, gladioli, dahlias and roses, and way down on the list are the holly nuts, or enthusiasts, who (many of them) could pass for normal citizens.
Fortunately for the world, Kathleen Messerve was not one of the normals. The holly seized her, the bug (as gardeners say) bit so hard, that for some years she was quite out of her head, actually, for hollies.
One frightful year she looked out after a grueling winter and noticed 80 percent of her young hollies were dead.
This, to a holly fancier, was exactly like going to Chartres and noticing everything except the Butter Tower had collapsed in an earthquake.
Now before this she had taken to crossing hollies. Without being too obscene it probably may be said that new sorts of hollies are produced by taking the pollen, or sperm-bearing, flower of one holly and setting it in the receptive pistil, or egg-bearing, flower of another.
The hollies that survived the frightful winter turned out to be babies from the cross of the English holly and an excessively rare (rare because few gardeners would want it) dwarfish holly from the coldest part of Japan.
She had always wanted (since the initial holly passion first descended on her) to produce a glossy holly with sparkling bright red fruit, that would grow low and resist cold better than the English. And with rich blue-green leaves.
To her astonishment, she had produced it.
"I was terribly lucky, of course, to find some really good plants in the first attempt from seed," she said.
The results of the crosses between the Japanese and English varieties were named Ilex X messerveae in her honor -- a pretty staggering honor, when you consider that Thomas Jefferson and even the great Linnaeus himself have quite minor plants named for them.
She grew her hollies in pots and fiddled about with them in her small greenhose (for the male flowers and female flowers do not concide in her climate) and brought them into the kitchen when the sexes finally got together timewise. There, with a magnifying glass and some tweezers, she got the two together at last.
Thus her allusion to the kitchen stud farm.
"Hollies aren't very exciting in the evening," she said, in a rare confession that hollies aren't everything.
There was her husband, there were the children, so life was very full.
Making it even fuller was a Labrador who as a pup had shown greater independence and ingenuity than his litter-mates. Brains in dogs, as in people, is often a poor basis for selection, however, and this dog learned he could drive his mistress quite mad by pulling out the identifying labels of her holly seedlings, so he did it.
"For years," she said, "I was afraid to introduce anything commercially," since without your labels you aren't quite sure what genes have got into your breeding, but in due time it was all sorted out. (She now has a Pekingese).
In first wild burst of freedom as a city girl let loose in the country, she ventured also into pigs.
"I bought two little ones and they promptly got pneumonia. I put them in the basement.
"Please do not try to tell me pigs are naturally clean. The minute you opened the front door you knew pigs were in the house.
"I thought of cholera. I knew two of the neighbors' pigs died and I phoned the vet to ask him if cholera was the cause. He said no, not to worry. pThese people owned a famous brand of spaghetti, and the vet said they fed the sweepings from the spaghetti factory to their pigs and they died of malnutrition.
"The vet said to take the pigs' temperature, so I got out the rectal thermometer and held their back feet up. Believe me, those were the longest two minutes I ever spent. They screamed and squealed the whole time. But they recovered. I fed them apples."
Kathleen Messerve is a fund of such lore, but the point is she had a busy full life indeed.
Once a great holly authority erred, she thought, in printed comments about one species.
"He just walked away from me," she said, "so I went after him and said, 'Don't just walk off, answer me.' He said he thought I was wrong," and walked off permanently.
"But then he wrote me and acknowledged the error and corrected it," she said. "When I mentioned this experience to another great authority, he laughed and said it all reminded him a windmill trying to blow at a hurricane." l
One small triumph -- how we treasure them, there being no other kind -- came when she visited a great arboretum collection and questioned the identification of one holly.
"Oh, no," they said, "the great authority Dr. Hume identified it himself."
"Well, I think it's wrong," said Messerve, so the arboretum wrote the great European arboretum that had provided the plant in the first place and they said Messerve was correct.
This is exactly similar to telling the Kennedys they do not comprehend politics.
She takes things with her to read, and thus does not care whether people are early, late or on time. She appears to be far on the other side of fretfulness about clocks, trains, cabs and the like.
She takes her ordered world around with her.
A widow now, she wants to make sure, all the same, that her snowy hair is not windblown, and she takes her glasses off if she sees a camera.
She thought, a few years ago, the time had come to see more friends, to play bridge and not sit alone muttering to herself about hollies. (Hence her observation they are not much fun in the evening.)
She has bred a number of wild species of hollies, in addition to the Japanese-English crosses that gave gardeners such dandy kinds as "Blue Princess" and "Blue Angel."
"I have never gotten anything from Ilex pernyii," she said, for example.
"What?" you shoot back. "The most beautiful of all hollies. You must keep on and on with it."
"It's quite gawky," she will say. For there is a strain of perversity in her as there was in her Labrador. "It would do out in the distance somewhere but not near the house."
"But as the most elegant of all hollies, where else would you place it except right against the house?" you will certainly bait her.
"It does not weep," she will say.
And there, of course, she has got you. Of course it does not weep. It's not supposed to.
"I would like a weeping holly, a weeping 'Blue Princess,'" she goes on.
You think possibly she is reacting merely to your just evaluation of I. pernyii, which you admit does not go around dragging its polished branches like a whipped mongrel.
"No," she says, "I really would. It would take maybe 15 years for me to reach that goal. I think, what am I saying -- 15 years. At my age."
She hopped a cab. Her grandson was going to sing in a cathedral in Baltimore. Her son has a fine voice, too. So did her husband. She can't carry a tune, alas. Her husband's father provided Daniel Chester French with the photographs for his statue of Lincoln in the memorial here. The name Messerve, she said, is better known for Lincolniana than for hollies.
"Like hell it is," the gardener thinks of saying, but merely waves goodbye.