Scientists Teach an Old Christmas Plant New Tricks
By Jill Lee
December 22, 1997
In Victorian England, the family Christmas tree might have been 10
feet tall. But instead of pine needles, the plant might have had
shiny, smooth green leaves and red berries. It wasnt a holly.
Victorian families often picked an Ardesia shrub as the
Some nurseries sell Ardesia as a landscape shrub. But as a
seasonal treat its making a comeback--now in a much smaller
package and sporting new colors-- thanks to scientists with the
Arboretum, a part of USDAs
Agricultural Research Service.
The new plant is tiny, growing only about 6 inches tall, but with
more than 200 cherry-shaped berries that pop out all over in
snow-white or hot, bright red. The plant has natural resistance to
whiteflies and other pests.
Researchers with the ARS
and Nursery Plant Research Unit traveled to Japan, Korea and
China, where Ardesia species are common. They brought back
plants such as Ardesia crenata, which has white or red berries
with variegated leaves.
Getting Ardesia to put on a festive face can be tricky, say
the researchers. It tends to sprout berries only on its bottom
branches. The researchers are developing trimming techniques to make
sure the holiday mini-version of this plant wears a red or white crown
and has berries on the bottom, too.
Another challenge: Ardesia takes two years to go from a seed
to marketable plant. Cuttings reduce this time by half, but
researchers are seeking the optimum time to take cuttings. They want
rooting success to be 100 percent--a key to putting the plant on the
specialty nursery market.
Ardesia is not the only Christmas-time ornamental the
scientists have studied. Most of the holiday poinsettias American
consumers buy today can trace their genetic ancestry to breeding and
research programs. Modern holly has also benefitted from arboretum
Scientific contact: Mark S. Roh, ARS
and Nursery Plants Research Unit,
Arboretum, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-5659, fax (301)