Now that he’s finished researching and leading the effort to label hundreds of holly plants, Clayton Leadbetter loves to walk around the Rutgers Gardens grounds in New Brunswick to simply enjoy the beauty and variety of these shrubs and trees.

This is an especially apt time of year to stroll among the Gardens grounds, as the hollies are just starting to display their spectacular coverings of glistening red, scarlet, gold, ivory, and yellow berries. In other words, while it’s been the season to deck the halls with boughs of hollies, it is also the time to view the splendor of what is probably the largest and oldest American holly collection in our country.

Rutgers Gardens occupies a unique position in the university’s hierarchy. Though the land is owned by the Rutgers and the director’s salary comes from the university budget, all other aspects of the gardens’ maintenance rely on public support. Because that support can fluctuate, maintenance — aside from the appearance and upkeep of the grounds — can vary.

It was the obvious lack of documentation of what has long been recognized as a superb holly collection that led two donors to fund Leadbetter’s work. His qualifications are also unique. Hailing from a farming family in western Pennsylvania, Leadbetter majored in English at Clarion University and then headed east to obtain a master’s degree from William Paterson University, which was followed by work as an editor and an adjunct professor of English.

Finding that career path less than satisfying, Leadbetter returned to his farming roots to pursue an advanced degree in plant biology and ornamental breeding at Rutgers. Upon completing his course work, Leadbetter joined the Rutgers Gardens to develop new plant varieties as well as to teach students in this line of endeavor. He was especially suitable for one other aspect of his job: maintaining plant records.

Perhaps it was the training in English studies — a pursuit that involves investigating minutia and meaning — that helped as he pored over dusty papers and old files trying to track down not only where all the hollies came from but when they arrived (this is known as an accession date). The results for plant lovers near and far are fascinating.

“The oldest known accessions in our collection were planted in 1937,” Leadbetter says. Holly plants, then, are not only beautiful but tough. As I walked among the paths meandering through the Rutgers Gardens’ towering collection of American hollies, I felt as if I were strolling through a marvelous edifice. The hollies, some topping out at over 30 feet, create huge dark green walls currently decorated with colorful berries.

“Because the old, hand-written files are incomplete,” Leadbetter says, “there might even be older hollies on our grounds, hollies whose planting date is lost to time or simply not present in our records.” The lack of documentation is due in part to the somewhat muddled history of the collection. “Hollies were planted for breeding and display,” Leadbetter says, “and others are offspring from crosses. All were likely recorded differently by different people over time.”

Though the holly collection was not officially started until 1946, its history can be said to date back decades. By the early 1920s several New Jersey plant lovers (some might deem them fanatics) became alarmed when widespread cutting of the American holly for Christmas decorations was leading to its disappearance in the wild.

Elizabeth White, primarily known for promoting blueberries as a viable commercial crop, was among the holly lovers as well as Superior Court Judge Thomas Brown. Both started holly collections on their properties and both were instrumental in convening meetings to discuss and preserve hollies. Meanwhile, faculty members from what was then the Rutgers College of Agriculture were discussing the establishment of a holly research program.

In 1944 when Judge Brown noticed that one of those faculty members was an expert witness in a trial, he called a brief recess and privately asked the witness to enter his chambers so that he could ask several questions about hollies. Though no record of that conversation remains, it led to the judge inviting several Rutgers faculty and Elizabeth White to tour his collection. Following that gathering, the New Jersey Holly Research Committee was formed, and that ultimately led to the creation of the Rutgers holly collection.

From the beginning the purpose of the collection was to conduct research and to breed new cultivars so that the vision of hollies would be expanded from Christmas decorations to landscape beauties. To help get it established holly enthusiasts throughout New Jersey donated their best selections. White’s and Brown’s hollies were among those that made the trip to the Gardens. White, for example, gave the “Goldie” holly, and it is still thriving on the grounds to this day. Discovered by Mrs. W.K. du Pont on her Wilmington, Delaware, estate and introduced in 1940 by White, it is named for its vivid yellow fruits.

With the retirement of faculty interested in hollies, the collection languished until the 1960s, when Elwin R. Orton joined the university’s department of plant science. Famous for developing the beautiful Rutgers hybrid dogwoods, Orton was also interested in breeding hollies. Hollies, it should be noted, differ from many plants in that there are males and females. The females bear the berries, but the males determine the size and color. One male can service up to five or more females within a 50 foot radius.

There were more than enough males and females in the Rutgers collection for Orton to begin his work. His goal, which he met, was to introduce American hollies that had the darker green and glossier foliage found on English hollies as well as larger and more profuse berries. He named one of his most spectacular introductions “Jersey Princess” and a princess it is with lustrous, rich green foliage and abundant red fruit. One of its parents is now known as “Jersey Knight” but it was simply tagged “Brown No. 9” when it was transplanted from the judge’s property to the Gardens.

Orton not only bred for larger fruit but also to extend the range of foliage color on hollies. Two of his hybrids available to this day and among the collection include “Autumn Glow” with orange tinged fall foliage and “Harvest Red,” whose leaves take on purple tones as the year progresses. And both, of course, have bright red berries.

Thanks to Leadbetter’s work, each holly is clearly labeled, and you can download plant accession lists and holly collection maps at www.rutgersgardens.edu/HollyCollection.html. And you can visit whenever you choose because Rutgers Gardens is one of the few public gardens in the country that does not charge a visitor’s fee and is open 365 days a year.

However, should you go on your own, you would miss the wonderful stories behind the hollies, how they arrived, who grew them originally, and how long they had been in the Gardens. To truly enjoy the holly collection, go on a tour.

In general, guided tours must be arranged beforehand. There is a minimum charge of $100 for groups up to 10, and $10 per person for additional visitors. There is, however, a free public tour offered at 1 p.m. on Saturday, January 14, with a snow date set for January 21. Bruce Crawford, the garden director, will be the tour leader. Crawford also serves as an adjunct professor in the Landscape and Architecture Department at Rutgers and loves to share his enjoyment of plants. With almost 500 holly plants in the Gardens, there is a lot for Crawford to share and captivating stories for you to enjoy.

Rutgers Gardens, 112 Ryder Lane, New Brunswick. Open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk. Free tour Saturday, January 14, 1 p.m. 732-932-8451 or rutgersgardens.rutgers.edu.

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