I love the saying “Standing on the shoulders of giants” because it reminds me that most all great accomplishments are built on the people that labored before us. This is especially true in plant breeding.
Holger Hachmann, a plant breeder from the Holstein region of Germany is quick to remind people that his breeding work could not have been accomplished if not for his father and a housewife in Long Island, New York.
Holger grew up the son of a nurseryman and renowned plant breeder Hans Hachmann. His father was, without a doubt, the most prolific Rhododendron breeder ever. In addition to introducing hundreds Rhododendrons, he develop a number of popular Potentilla cultivars including Potentilla ‘Hachmann’s Giant.’ Plant breeding was taught to the young Holger by example, just as he learned to weed the fields and to root cuttings. Hans taught his son the secrets of plant breeding. His most important lesson was to start by identifying a problem or weakness in a plant, and then solve it. Certainly Holger was well trained and well equipped to begin his plant breeding career. He had a great teacher.
In stark contrast, years earlier a housewife was laying a new foundation. An amateur horticulturist by the name of Kathleen Kellogg Meserve, told a reporter "Not knowing what I was doing was an advantage. I didn't know what could be done and what couldn't. So I just did it." And without any formal training and without understanding chromosome numbers she develop what we now call Blue Holly. She crossed the beautiful but tender English Holly (Ilex aquafolium) with a hardy, low growing Rugose Holly (Ilex rugosa). At first glance this may seem trivial, but in actuality this cross made it possible for millions of people in Middle America to grow Holly.
And so the foundation was laid; Holger’s father had taught him the tools of plant breeding and Kathleen Meserve invented a hardy holly. And as blue hollies became more popular, Holger found himself growing a good number at his nursery. In time, he soon came to realize that Kathleen’s work was not yet complete. Growing a good quality blue holly took a lot of time and care. The plants grew slowly and required a lot of shearing to make a full plant. Additional people expected hollies to be upright pyramidal evergreens and not round bushes. Here was a breeding opportunity. To solve this problem, Holger crossed the hardy Blue Prince holly with ‘Alaska’ a pyramidal, glossy leaved English holly which was considered the hardiest of all English Holly.
With time and patience Holger made his selections and introduced two new plants. And fittingly, he named his plants Castle Hollies; stately, yet rugged plants built on a strong foundation laid down by two previous “Giants” of the breeding world. Growers in Europe and America have been growing his plants for about four years now and the reports have been very favorable. Castle Spire holly is fast growing female selection with bright red berries. It has a traditional Christmas tree shape. The foliage is quite unlike Blue Holly, being extremely glossy and rich green in color. Castle Wall holly is a very functional male selection. This is Holger’s favorite because it makes good container plant and a great hedge. Its dense, upright habit makes it a good replacement for the over used ‘Hicksii’ yew. With its useful shape and attractive glossy foliage, this plant is more than just a pollinator. It will find a home in the landscape as a specimen, hedge and foundation plant.
Brick by brick, stone by stone and trait by trait, breeders continue to improve upon the work of their predecessors. Clearly it takes a strong foundation to build a beautiful castle that will stand the test of time.