Now here’s an interesting story about the one that nearly got away.  Nope, it’s not a big fish.  It’s a holly.   Ilex X ‘Cherry Bomb’ was a long ago gift to the SFA Arboretum from JC Raulston.  It arrived as part of a box of about 50 tiny plants in 1986 and had a label reading NA28255.  We were a tiny new garden on the South side of the Agriculture building unencumbered by staff, budgets, or operating money.  Basically, we were  quickly on our way to developing a reputation as an annoying, yet attractive nuisance at this institution of higher learning.  Plants were precious back then and when we received a gift box, it was an event of epic proportions.  I would gather students around for the unpacking, go to repotting and labeling and it was Christmas in the garden.  I called them bits of gold.  We would grow them on and plant them here and there in the garden.  Well, this particular Ilex was part of a collection of hollies that JC Raulston was trialing for the National Arboretum.  He had propagated them, scattered them far and wide as he was prone to do – and we were one of those lucky recipients.

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We had four NA numbered selections that ended up in 1987 in what we called “Holly Row” of Asian Valley (NA 28338, 28221, 28269, 28297, and 28255).  Most are still there.  NA 28255 was a particularly interesting clone because it was spineless and soft to the touch.  Slow growing, it eventually reached four feet tall by about that much wide and became a favorite in the garden.

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Long ago image of ‘Cherry Bomb’ in the SFA Arboretum

After graduation, Scott Reeves, former student, SFASU Horticulture, found himself at Treesearch Farms, Houston, Texas working for Heidi Sheesley and he noticed that it performed well there.  It wasn’t long before numbers were built and he asked if I thought the name ‘Cherry Bomb’ was pretty good.  I thought it was a great name – and the plant entered commerce.  It received favorable reviews in the landscape trade and became a good holly to plant in the alkalinity challenged landscapes of the region in spots where other hollies often failed.  It had a good shape, clean foliage and nice big red berries that persisted well on the plant.

Time passed (decade) and the USNA decided to check with evaluators and the decision was made that none of the Ilex NA selections distributed would be introduced and they should be destroyed.  John Ruter of the University of Georgia remarked that he thought there was a “Texas garden” that had distributed the plant and he thought it was actually in commerce.  John let me know the situation and I picked up the phone and called Margaret Pooler and related my history with the plant.  No we weren’t part of the original distribution.  It was given to us by JC Raulston.  That was all the explanation she needed.  Margaret knew JC.  Everyone knew it was JC’s mantra to give it all away and let the world sort it out.  I provided some additional information and the plant was introduced formally.

As quoted from the eventual introduction by the National Arboretum, ‘Cherry Bomb’ originated from the breeding program of William F. Kosar at the U.S. National Arboretum as open pollinated seed collected from Ilex ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ during the winter of 1959-60.  The male parent is believed to be Ilex integra.  The palnt was sent for evaluation to several botanical gardens was not pursued further by the National Arboretum.  Several growers in the southern U.S., particularly Texas, recognized the value of this plant, and in the 1980s David Creech at the SFA Mast Arboretum began to call it Ilex X ‘Cherry Bomb’.  (http://www.usna.usda.gov/Newintro/cherrybomb.pdf)

The plant is remarkably durable.  I planted one in Shelby county, Texas, at a friends small restaurant business which soon failed and the place was abandoned. While the rest of the landscape went to heaven, ‘Cherry Bomb’ remained cheerful.  With Adam Black, I recently spotted a ‘Cherry Bomb at Peckerwood Gardens, Hempstead, Texas and it was showing off in that tough spot in Texas.  We discussed its heritage and he had recently featured it in his newsletter.

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A ‘Cherry Bomb’ in Shelby county, Texas under zero care and culture

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‘Cherry Bomb’ with ring of berries, Peckerwood Gardens, Hempstead, Texas 12-31-2016

The plant continues in the trade. Scott Reeves moved on to Creekside Nursery at Hempstead, Texas, and continues to sell ‘Cherry Bomb’ to this day.  Any Google search for the words Ilex Cherry Bomb will uncover a long list of nurseries growing the plant.  Tony Avent  of Plants Delight, NC, remarked, “Fortunately, a couple of Gene’s (Gene Eisenbeiss inherited the Kosar plants at the USNA) hollies managed to escape before the destruction, including a plant now known as Ilex ‘Cherry Bomb’, which is possibly one of the finest evergreen hollies on the market today.”

The plant made its way to gardens on the East coast.  Greenleaf named it a Garden Debut plant.  Other nurseries gave it a spot in their inventory.  It had made its way to Virginia and Rob Woodman’s blog raves about its performance there in lofty terms, “My hat comes off to this Holly, for the reason that it has gone out of its way to not look like a Holly except for its large red berries.   Even a taste test of sorts done with a colleague resulted with him mentioning how good that plant was for the following ten minutes.  I’m surprised he didn’t light up a cigarette after his experience to gain his composure back.  Though one would not consider it terribly sexy, ‘Cherry Bomb’ does make quiet an sensation in the garden for a Holly!”  My advice is don’t eat holly berries!  http://www.thebritishgardener.com/2012/05/damn-good-plants-holly-cherry-bomb.html

I was recently in Virginia and ran into what I think is the largest Cherry Bomb in the world.  I was visiting with Jim Owens, Research Scientist, at the Virginia Tech Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Hampton Roads, Virginia and I saw this amazing haystack and, yes, it was a ‘Cherry Bomb’.  Evidently, the station was a long ago recipient of the JCR distributed plant and ‘Cherry Bomb’ obviously found a home to its liking.  So much for the idea of it ending up as 4′ X 4′ dwarf!

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Dr. Jim Owens, Research Scientist, Virginia Tech, Hampton Roads, VA

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