In Memoriam: Robert D. Gartrell
Donald H. Voss
Recipient of the American Rhododendron Society's Bronze Medal from the New York Chapter in 1975 and the Society's Silver Medal in 1980, Robert D. Gartrell leaves to the horticultural world a heritage of remarkable azaleas - the sixty-nine he named as Robin Hill evergreen azaleas, as well as a large collection of numbered hybrids that are presently undergoing evaluation in various sections of the country. Several in the latter group, which Robert requested be designated Gartrell Hybrids, have already been recognized for superior beauty and performance and have been named.
Robert's interest in hybridizing extended over a period of six decades. While in Canada in the 1920s, he crossed delphiniums in an attempt to obtain a true blue color. On returning to the United States in 1930, he found that cultural conditions in northern New Jersey were not favorable for work with delphiniums and therefore sought another subject for hybridizing. Noting the paucity of azalea cultivars that would grow and bloom reliably in the area (only Kurumes were widely grown) and remembering from his early years in Atlanta, Georgia, the large and beautiful flowers of the Southern Indicas, Robert decided in the late 1930s to work with azaleas.
Robert approached the new challenge scientifically, applying methodology ingrained from the work in chemistry and industrial product development in which he was engaged until retirement in 1960. He began by researching azalea hybridization, identifying the parentage of cultivars with promising characteristics, and acquiring plants for evaluation and crossing. In the course of these activities, Robert earned the respect and friendship of plantsmen - many of the greats and tyros alike.
After selecting and growing to maturity nearly 2,000 hybrids during the 1950s, Robert faced disappointment when he evaluated the plants in 1962. While many were superior in habit and quality of foliage, Robert judged that the flowers were not sufficiently distinctive from the Glenn Dales and others to warrant introduction. By then, however, thousands more seedlings had been grown, and genes from a number of the newly introduced Satsukis were adding to hardy stock the characteristics sought: superior foliage and plant form; low-growing habit; large, full flowers of good substance; and, in many cases, late blooming.
As the new hybrids matured and demonstrated their quality, Robert sought to find out how they would prosper in other areas. He distributed cuttings and small plants to azalea specialists - ARS members, nurserymen, and botanical gardens - in this country and abroad. Reports came back that these magnificent azaleas were truly hardy and also surprisingly heat tolerant, and soon many of them were being avidly sought by collectors and propagated by nurserymen. Characteristically, even when the Robin Hill azaleas had fulfilled his early hopes, Robert set new goals and continued to make new crosses until failing health forced him to close his nursery in Wyckoff, New Jersey.
When Nancy and Robert moved to Black Mountain, North Carolina, in 1981, Fred Rees - a good friend with whom Robert had often travelled in the search for rare plants - dug several truckloads of the Robin Hill and Gartrell Hybrid azaleas and transported them to his nursery at Saluda, North Carolina. In this way, much of the original collection was preserved.
Those who came to know Robert's creativity and gentility through contact with him in connection with azaleas and those who know of him only through his hybrids may find a deeper appreciation of the man and his horticultural work in awareness of his other accomplishments and interests. Intellectual curiosity and creativity were hallmarks of his approach to product development with the U.S. Rubber Company and to his avocational activities. Early in his career, Robert in the 1920s developed the process for vulcanizing rubber soles to canvas uppers that made possible "Keds." During World War II, self-sealing lining for fuel tanks was among the defense related products developed under his direction. One of his major contributions in the postwar years was an acid and abrasion resistant conveyor belting for coal mining. In addition to horticulture, his hobbies included the study of history, music appreciation, art history, mathematics, and electronics.
Robert D. Gartrell died on October 30,1985, at the age of 90, but he left to us an everlasting legacy of springtime beauty.