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Cathey Retires after 50 Years

His contributions to horticulture will be recognized for years to come.

A horticultural legend is leaving the Mount Vernon area. After 50 years, Dr. H. Marc Cathey has retired from the American Horticultural Society (AHS). No longer will his familiar face be seen around the grounds of River Farm, the headquarters of AHS. He and his wife, Mary, are moving to Davidson, N.C.

A native of Davidson, Cathey received a B.S. degree from North Carolina State University in 1950. He worked for a year as a florist in North Carolina. He received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Cornell University in 1955 under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Post and studied for a year as a Fulbright Scholar at the Agricultural University in Wageningen, the Netherlands.

“We will definitely miss him,” said Katy Moss Warner, AHS President. “He has been here since 1959. He served so many different roles — president, president emeritus, chairman of the board, featured speaker, radio and television personality. The guy is remarkable.”

Cathey, who served as president of the American Horticultural Society from 1974 to 1978 and again from 1993 to 1997, leaves behind a legacy of helping the horticultural world.

“He was a real champion of plants — the joy, the artistry and the science of plants,” Warner said. “He had an uncanny knack of making the Science of plants magical. He took great pleasure in sharing the magic of science and explaining it.”

WHILE HE WAS at River Farm, Cathey worked on long term projects for AHS including the "Smartgarden" program, coding of plants for books and catalogs, leading educational garden tours, and speaking engagements. In 1997, he coordinated the introduction of the AHS Plant Heat Zone Map that permits the coding of all plants for their heat tolerance.

Cathey served as co-editor of the AHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, published by DK Publishing in 2004. He also coded plants and was an editorial consultant or contributor to several other AHS gardening books, including "AHS Smartgarden Regional Guide" series, "AHS Garden Plants and Flowers," and two AHS Plant Guides. In 1998, he wrote "Heat-Zone Gardening," with Linda Bellamy.

“As one of the leading voices in American horticulture over the last 50 years, Dr. Cathey's influence on home gardeners and the plant industry is beyond measure," said David Ellis, AHS director of communications. "He has championed the gardener's role in environmental stewardship and fostered the development of tools such as the USDA Hardiness Zone map and the AHS Heat Zone map that help gardeners pick the appropriate plants for their landscape. We will greatly miss his regular presence at AHS, but look forward to working with him on his ongoing projects."

Prior to his work at AHS, Cathey was stationed at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Beltsville office from 1956 to 1980 as a research horticulturist. He conducted research on the interrelations of light, temperature and chemicals in the growth of plants. Through this research, he developed guidelines that can be used by commercial growers and home gardeners for applying light and chemicals to control the size, shape, color, pollution tolerance and flowering of a large number of florist and nursery-grown plants.

Rob Griesbach, Floral & Nursery Plants Research at the U.S. National Arboretum, said, "The USDA performs mission-orientated research. Dr. Cathey helped teach me the meaning of this type of research. Mission-orientated research has at its root a practice problem. The solution to that problem usually involves basic theoretical research. This solution then requires additional applied research to put that solution into practice. Dr. Cathey's research involved all aspects of a problem from basic to applied. Finally, Dr. Cathey was the ultimate salesperson. His tech transfer activities convinced the industry of the merits of the new practices. Very few scientists today have the breadth to perform both types of research, as well as tech transfer."

Cathey is also known for his horticultural presentations on both radio and television. He has been a frequent guest on NBC’s Today, ABC’s GoodMorning America, and CBS’s Morning Break shows and also appeared in Evening Magazine. Cathey is the popular host of a three-hour gardening show every Saturday morning that is broadcast on 32 Growise all-news, all-talk radio stations in the mid-Atlantic nine-state area. He is currently a commentator on National Public radio and appears on television shows for PBS and other networks.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, AHS employees, friends and family celebrated Cathey’s retirement with a party.

“It was astounding, over the top,” said Cathey, who is still trying to decide what to do with the 57 ties that he received as presents form the guest.

“They wanted to help me stay properly dressed,” he said. “It was a fun time. Friends enjoyed telling stories, some of which were true.”

Cathey has enjoyed his time at River Farm and will be back to visit. Even after he stepped down as president, he continued his affiliation with the AHS by serving as President Emeritus from 1997 to 2005.

He enjoyed sharing his knowledge of horticulture so much that he gave weekly talks to the staff and volunteers. He gave one final talk last week about fig trees. As he was known for doing, he wove stories of his past into the talk.

“The edible fig made my family famous,” Cathey said. “We can fix anything if have a nap and a fig Newton.”

He explained some of the different types of figs, and told the group that they should never water or fertilize fig trees. It’s OK to prune them, but they really need tough love. He also said that the only cultivar suitable for eating was the “Brown Turkey.”

“He would weave a whole story using allusions, especially with movie characters,” Warner said. “He also makes lot of references to his grandchildren. He thinks his most important profession is as a grandfather.”

He has five grandchildren — Elizabeth and Sarah, who are the offspring of his son Henry Jr. and his wife, Jodie; and Alex, Emily and Ellen, born to his daughter, Marcy and her husband, Aaron.

Warner said that he has color names for all of them — Miss Emerald, Miss Ruby, Miss Peach and Miss Pink. Cathey himself is Dr. Purple and his wife is Miss Blue. He has given Warner the name of Miss Silver.

Cathey enjoys color so much that he creates coloring books. Color is also one of the projects that he will be taking with him into retirement; the other is light.