William Robinson: Gardener Extraordinaire
As the American Rhododendron Society approaches its sixtieth birthday, many, if not a majority of its current membership, are unaware of what one of our number has contributed to broadening our familiarity with and inculcating our love for the genus Rhododendron.
William Robinson, a charter member of the ARS, is honored at
the Society’s 50th anniversary convention in Portland, Oregon.
William "Robbie" Robinson, the individual to whom I allude, is, as a member of the Portland Chapter, the sole surviving founder and charter member of the ARS.
Born April 10, 1917, in Lonerock, Oregon, in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, Robbie (as he is affectionately known) found himself situated to ineluctably draw on the wellspring of his leanings. Growing up in an area pioneered by his great grandparents (who arrived in Oregon in 1844's second wave of immigrants crossing the Oregon Trail - Oregon was still British for two more years), Robbie displayed an early fascination with nature and plants in particular. In this rustic eastern Oregon setting with little in the way of modern amenities, necessity became the mother of invention and adaptability. His parents and extended family and friends nurtured his tendencies to connect to his surroundings.
As a young man, he was initially propelled in the direction of seeking a "higher education" with a law degree its final culmination. In short order he found this undertaking most wanting in terms of what he really wanted to do. By happenstance he became involved with plants and wound up in Portland where he worked for a number of years for the Swiss Floral Company under the tutelage of the knowledgeable and respected John Bacher. From Mr. Bacher, who had emigrated from his native Switzerland, Robbie learned much with regard to horticulture; his first acquaintance with rhododendrons (in grafting and layout in the landscape) came at this juncture.
Upon Bacher's passing in 1947, Robbie left the employ of Swiss Floral Company to begin his thirty-year-long career with Portland's Park Bureau. He eventually became Portland city park's head gardener, and his love of plants took him in a number of meaningful directions.
His first love was camellias; this lasted for a number of years and, although an enduring interest, his evolving rapture with rhododendrons came to be first and foremost.
His early involvement with rhododendrons and his charter membership in the ARS led him to think rhododendrons whenever and wherever he landscaped in the city parks. His involvement with Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden from when it was a test garden to its present designation was legendary. Many of the original trees and shrubs were his selections, and this was a principal factor in his receiving the Portland Chapter's first Bronze Medal decades ago.
In 1963, after much initial deliberation, the idea of a Japanese garden on the site of the old Portland zoo came to fruition. A Professor P.T. Tono was enlisted to design and install the garden and Robbie came to judiciously assist his efforts. Many of the garden's stepping-stones came from his Lonerock homestead, and his selection of ocean worn cobble from the Oregon coast is visible in a number of garden locations. During and for many years after the initial installation, Robbie was central in the carrying on of tradition at the garden. Eventually, in 1985, he became a life member of the garden and was, at the same time, awarded the Medal of the Sixth Class of the Sacred Treasure by the Emperor of Japan and the Japanese government.
Robbie's other interests led him in 1975 to become a charter member of the Home Orchard Society. He was very active in this organization for years and its influence has burgeoned throughout the nation (witness the variety of apples and other fruit offered in today's markets).
For many years (this was where I first met him in 1972) going back to 1944, Robbie was a member of the Men's Garden Club of Portland; this was a thriving entity for many years.
His interest in the trees of Portland moved him, after many years, to designate a number of old and outstanding trees throughout the city. This became the Heritage Tree program and it continues in a lively fashion to this day.
With his keen interests and involvements over the years, one has only to visit Robbie's home to see the many vestiges of his active life. Fruit trees and ornamental shrubs and trees of note are everywhere on his two-city-lot property. Two of his notable finds of plants in his long career reside here - Pieris japonica 'Flamingo' and Ribes sanguineum alba
Peter Kendall is a member of the Portland Chapter.