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Plant of the Week: Holly, Blue Princess

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Blue Princess Holly
Latin: Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Princess

No photo available.

According to Thomas Jefferson, one of the greatest services a person can render to mankind is to introduce a new and useful plant.

Mrs. Kathleen Meserve, a Long Island, N.Y., housewife and plant breeder extraordinaire, did more than that she introduced an entirely new race of plants and had them named after her in the process.

The blue hollies Meserve developed are evergreen shrubs that grow under 12 feet tall and broad and have red berries in the winter. The leaves are mostly under 2 inches long with spiny margins and a blue coloration in the winter. Most evergreen hollies do best in zones 7 to 9, but the blue hollies have extra winter hardiness and can be grown as far north as Chicago, zone 5, without winter injury.

Meserve grew up on Park Avenue in New York City where plants simply were not in her universe. She and thousands of others were introduced to plants during World War II when the Victory Garden program was started by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to encourage homeowners to grow their own vegetables to save commercial resources for the war effort.

After the war, the Meserves moved to a new shaded estate a few miles from their old home. The new garden was unsuited for vegetables so she cast about for a new plant to occupy her awakened interest in gardening. At a garden club meeting, she became acquainted with hollies and was soon collecting all of the sorts available from local nurseries.

Her breeding efforts were spurred by an interest in developing a dwarf form of evergreen holly with red berries that was not too large for use in foundation plantings. The red berried hollies of her acquaintance the English, Chinese and American hollies were all trees that grew 20 feet or more high and wide and required constant shearing to use in the landscape. She managed to obtain seeds of Ilex rugosa, a dwarf evergreen holly of northern Japan and Korea that had red berries. Her breeding efforts began in the early 1950s.

Many of her crosses succeeded and seed developed. She planted the seeds and two years later had seedlings from the crosses. Then, disaster struck. The winter of 1956 was colder than most, with temperatures dropping to minus 17 degrees.

Upon inspecting her crosses in the spring, she realized most of her seedlings had died, except for the plants that had Ilex rugosa as a parent. These were planted on the grounds and watched for a few years. During the early years of the 60s, she worked with several nurseries trying to get her new creations as Luther Burbank would have called them into the marketplace. Finally Connard-Pyle, the nursery that gave us the Peace hybrid tea rose, introduced the plants in 1964.

"Blue Girl" and "Blue Boy" were the first introductions but were followed in 1972 by their children, "Blue Princess" and "Blue Prince," created by crossing the original hybrid back to the Ilex rugosa parent.

The 1972 crosses were even more cold hardy than the parents and more compact.

Meserve went on to release about a dozen hybrid hollies and was awarded a citation by the American Horticulture Society for her efforts as an amateur plant breeder.

The blue hollies have gone on to become mainstays of the nursery trade and are especially popular in colder parts of the country outside of the range where most evergreen hollies will grow. In the South, they are best given an area that receives some afternoon shade and a well drained soil. A male plant is required to pollinate the female plant and insure good berry set.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - November 6, 1998


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.