JARS v43n4 - Joseph B. Gable's Legacy

Joseph B. Gable's Legacy
Franklin H. West, M.D.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

No one who came to know him and his plants can forget his gentle manner, disarming modesty and encyclopedic knowledge of rhododendrons and azaleas. For almost 50 years his prodigious efforts in creating beautiful new plants for eastern gardens produced many miracles for us to enjoy and for contemporary hybridizers to build upon.

Thanks to my membership in the ARS, I first encountered Mr. Gable at the annual convention in 1962, where he served on a panel of hybridizers that included his old friend G. Guy Nearing. He spoke in a plain and unassuming yet authoritative manner, and shared his experience as well as current objectives. He saw his work as taking steps along the way to an ultimate goal, as he had told the 1961 International Rhododendron Conference in Portland: In our pursuit of new and better varieties, through hybridization we generally set ourselves a certain objective that we would attain. I think this should not be a goal which, when reached, would terminate our efforts, but rather it should be an ideal, and our successes but steps forward toward that thing called perfection, which is unattainable in our imperfect world, but in the pursuit of which, life finds justification for its existence.

Joseph Gable, 1966
Joseph Gable, 1966
photo by H. R. Yates
from ARS Journal files

The arrow is ever beyond us, pointing to higher attainments and ever more worthwhile goals. John Wister also spoke to that first International Conference in 1961 about three pioneer rhododendron breeders in the East. After describing the broad range of Gable's hybridizing efforts, and enumerating many of his breeding lines, Wister concluded: These are but a few of the many lines on which he has been working these last forty years. It is still hard to get any complete information about most of them. His printed lists have been small and have not attempted to "sell" the varieties by high praise. He is so modest that it takes repeated questioning to find out much about them. The best way to learn, of course, is to go to Stewartstown in the blooming season and then to ask so many questions that he cannot give a modest laugh about every plant that he says isn't "as good as" he hoped or that he says needs "further testing".

Of course his plants need further testing. They are getting it now in the gardens of those who have been lucky enough to get some of them. British or Dutch hybridizers who had produced plants similar to his would, in that time, have named dozens or hundreds of them. They would have exhibited them in flower shows and made them well known. They would have propagated them quickly by grafting and then would have distributed them to a worldwide clientele. Mr. Gable, on the other hand, continued to be a simple lone farmer doing all the work himself, making the crosses, growing the seedlings and planting them out and judging them year after year. The propagation of his selected clones has been very slow. Earlier Gable had written in the American Rhododendron Society's Rhododendron Yearbook for 1948: Perhaps after a quarter of a century spent in an attempt to grow rhododendrons in the Eastern United States in which the various species and varieties involved have reached well over the four figures mark, the above caption should read: "The Twenty Five Year Trial of a Rhododendron Grower"

Climate to be sure, in which the intense heat and dry atmosphere of summer is not far behind the subzero temperature of our winters in its adverse effects, is by far the most serious of the factors that tend to inhibit our growing the rhododendrons from those parts of the world where the finer species grow and also the great multitude of lovely hybrid sorts now available from across the Atlantic and latterly from our own Pacific Northwest.

In fact there is no other inhibiting factor that can not be easily met and I consider the successful culture of hardy rhododendrons much less of a problem than that of the modern rose. The difficulty lies in the paucity of species and varieties that we can truly call hardy in these parts. Therefore I think I shall devote this article that I have been honored with the request to write for our Yearbook to an enumeration of the most important kinds that I have been able to grow and some comments - perhaps quite unorthodox - on not only their beauty but also on their behavior in our company.

In this article he enumerated the few elepidote rhododendron species he had found reliably hardy in his York County, Pennsylvania, climate: smirnowii , brachycarpum , adenopodum , longesquamatum , fortunei , decorum , discolor , wardii , maximum , catawbiense , and sutchuenense . Of the red hybrids, "We have found only 'Cynthia', 'Essex Scarlet' and possibly 'Madame de Bruin' to be hardy enough to give satisfaction", yet he tried many reds and used griersonianum , atrosanguineum , floccigerum , haematodes , and thomsonii . It was from these sources that the Gable legacy in rhododendrons was developed. He concluded:

So where will Eastern rhododendron growers be in twenty five more years? Will our nurseries and gardens be bright with these lovely new sorts of which we are writing or will we still be reading the same old lists of hardy hybrids that the authorities have been recommending to us from time immemorial? One thing certain, we have no right to criticize them for their repetition of these lists if we do nothing about it.

In 1950 he wrote about his breeding work in the ARS Quarterly Bulletin , Volume 4, #1: The problem of breeding new varieties of broadleaf rhododendron of better color that will prove hardy in the Eastern U.S. is a real one. However the need is at least as real as the problem and we may therefore harbor the hope (if necessity yet mothers invention) that progress along these lines will soon begin to evidence itself in our Eastern gardens.

The words of certain prophets of yesteryear that seemed to me, at the time to be but the mumblings of pessimistic "wet blanketeers", that it would be "many years before we would produce any new varieties and see them commonly grown" have proven basically true. With the single exception of 'Dr. Dresselhuys' very few large Eastern nurseries have entered a single new rhododendron name on their lists in the last thirty years.

For many years in Britain, on the continent and latterly in our Pacific Northwest much work has been done and is being done but it is only accidental when some variety results from the breeding done in these areas that will prove of value in itself as a garden plant in our part of the world. But this does happen and I can mention four varieties not generally known here or conceded to be hardy that have proven quite satisfactory over enough years to warrant unqualified endorsement. They are R. 'Madame de Bruin', R. 'Goldsworth Yellow', R. 'Cynthia' and R. 'Essex Scarlet'. Something over a hundred of other varieties selected from English lists according to their hardiness ratings have been tried and quite a few exist and flower on occasion but the above four are the only ones I can conscientiously recommend.

What does all this mean? As I see it we must go right back to E. H. Wilson's advice in his "Aristocrats of The Garden that "if we wish new hardy types here we must build them here and build them upon the hardy species and hybrids that we have here." In a little over a quarter century of breeding I have found no single exotic species sufficiently hardy that when crossed with a tender species (or variety, possessing no genes of our hardy American species) it would produce progeny of fully satisfactory hardiness.

True we can get growable hybrids, beautiful things that once we see them we would never part with willingly, from the use of such exotic species as R. brachycarpum , R. caucasicum (?), R. smirnowii , R. discolor , R. fortunei , etc., but these species hardy enough in themselves, do not possess the necessary margin of hardiness when crossed with tender sorts, to produce a satisfactory degree of resistance to cold in their progeny.

What then do we have left to us as a potential source of hardiness in our hybrids? Only R. maximum and R. catawbiense . Primarily - and from personal experience only - yes, including of course those hybrids already produced that contain the blood of these species. But the use of R. maximum tends to small florets and the purple of R. catawbiense is murderous to anything of color? Only too true it is.

Selective hybridization is the only way out and perhaps through several generations. It is helpful to select good forms of these species to start with...

It requires years to produce a new hybrid and then if it has outstanding flowers, years more to prove its hardiness and worth in other ways. Then unless it be a sort that roots readily from cuttings it is a slow process to build up a sufficient stock to offer it on the market.

Nevertheless the work grows increasingly interesting with each passing year and the period of our being satisfied with the old "Centennial" hybrids will soon be passing." [It took Gable a long time to raise a very hardy R. fortunei and this probably prevented him from accomplishing the results so clearly seen today in the Dexter hybrids.] You can sense something of Gable the man by reading his letters to his long-time collaborator, Guy Nearing. In 1943: No matter how outstanding the new variety, improvements will ever be made. The best selling - and best to grow varieties - of all plant varieties are never permanent.

It is a continuously progressive process and I still affirm that when I named an azalea it was an improvement on any thing on the market in its day and in its class. But I keep right on breeding... And so it happens that something that looked so good to me ten or fifteen years back that I named it - and some of these have had enough merit to be grown by the thousands to fill the demand - have been so much outdone by newer creations of my own in their same color class etc. that I would be untrue to my work if I did not discard them and introduce the better variety.

I do not believe in introducing everything that is pretty or just a slight improvement etc. I think a good bit of my trouble with the azaleas was that so little or no work had been done in breeding hardy sorts that I had the field too much to myself. Almost every new color that came from the Kaempferi-Poukhanense crosses was hardy and hence a new hardy azalea in a new color for a hardy type. Hence I did not hesitate to propagate it. I am still proud of them for I have seen a few gardens with hundreds - one with thousands of Gable azaleas now taller than an average person and I feel that my first ambition in azalea breeding - that of making it possible to duplicate the azaleas of Magnolia Gardens farther north - is perhaps more than an idle dream. And in 1951: Coplen is rooting some of my azaleas and going at it in a big way. He propagates around the clock i.e. perhaps four or five lots of cuttings are taken from the plants kept growing continually in his houses. There are now some 20,000 'Rose Greeley' (D-3-G) in his houses and he says he can increase it to 100,000 by December...I must have had a rabbit's foot in each pocket and my neck through a horse shoe to get this lovely, hardy, hose-in-hose with large white flowers, in two generations from a Ledifolia Alba x Poukhanense cross! I got only two other whites from 240 seedlings and they were poor.

1952: So in chaotic and rather total disregard for the Mendelian laws - and I believe them to be excellent laws - I follow along lines that have given results without raising the necessary thousand or ten thousand plants - not that I have attained the ultimate - for that is unattainable, though like perfection in this life it is a goal we dare not lose sight of if we are to do our best. And that too is a good law for if we attained the ultimate in our various lines what would be left for generations yet to come? Should they be allowed nothing but absolute leisure to enjoy the perfections we had created?

On a table in the room I have trusses of sixteen new first showings. There is a cardinal red of the darkest shade with a very nice truss and flowers of unusual substance but a little on the small side. A red about like 'America' but slightly darker with a better truss and - this is what counts - good foliage and plant habit. A purple about the shade of 'Purple Splendour' but without the dark blotch in the throat - which would help! It will no doubt be hardier than that border line variety. Then there is a discolor derivative (x 'Caroline') that has larger flowers and trusses than 'Disca' and 'Cadis', intermediate in color and larger, more densely borne foliage. The flowers seem a little lacking in substance but so far have not wilted or fallen - in about a week. And there are a lot of new reds, a whole crop of them, mostly 'Essex Scarlet' seedlings with the first truss or two, and it is hard to tell which is the better this season. Also a 'Britannia' x 'America' which was earlier and of good color though not so deep as some of these. Perhaps you saw that one?

It is all very pleasing and very bewildering. The more fine things flower, the more difficult the choice, as one does not want to introduce too many varieties along any one line. And then it is hard to discard those which are already being propagated every time a new one comes along with a floret a quarter inch more in diameter, a color a quarter of a shade deeper but they keep growing on one and one grows older and more indifferent.

The best way one came to know Joe Gable was to visit him in Stewartstown. I must have made the trip a dozen times or more in the 1960's, thanks to a medical assignment that took me to a Veteran's Hospital that was half-way, almost, to York County. The visits blur together in my memory. The most outstanding impression of mine came each time at my arrival - he'd drop whatever he was doing, and present me with a gift of two hours of his time, and a personally guided tour of his garden and a short ride in his old red truck out to the woods where thousands of his seedlings and propagations were lined out. For each of his established plants there was a story to tell - from the time of an early April visit and the delightful discovery of 'Bosutch' in bloom - to a fall visit when the crimson color of 'Pioneer' foliage was so bright. He trusted me enough to let me see his only precious plants of 'Mary Belle' and 'Lisa'. It was a reward most gratifying and I'd leave with a station wagon full of new azaleas and rhododendrons to grow on in my home garden or at my old friend Phil Livingston's nearby.

The influence of Joe Gable can be seen in almost every eastern garden, most particularly in the Potomac Valley Chapter area where a great deal of further hybridizing work using Gable plants has taken place - by George Ring, Ray and Jane Goodrich, Caroline Gable, and Russ and Velma Haag - all of whom contributed to the writing of the Gable chapter in Hybrids and Hybridizers . George T. Miller of the Susquehanna Valley Chapter is building on the Gable Legacy, as is Dr. Tom Ring of Bellaire, Ohio.

It was Caroline Gable herself who best caught the spirit of her father when she wrote: Joe Gable was the one who made the growing and hybridizing of rhododendrons look deceptively simple, thereby encouraging a school of novices whose graduates can be found today busily planting, crossing, and seeding up and down the eastern seaboard.

Over a span of more than 40 years in which his enthusiasm for the genus never gave out, Gable abetted the aspirations of hundreds of correspondents and visitors to his little nursery at Stewartstown in central Pennsylvania's York County on the Maryland border. They came to take heart from the obvious, that an amateur without much money could aspire to enter the exotic world of rhododendrons.

There was the simplest of do-it-yourself setups, long before that phrase had come into fashion. The visitors looked over the tiny lean-to greenhouse, the homemade beds and shade houses, the propagation flats set out under the trees, the woods plantings lined out in clearings without benefit of irrigation or feeding, and concluded that they would do as well, or better, to Gable's great pride and pleasure.

There was the man himself, built small and spare for a lifetime of hard physical work, in the farmer's uniform of bib overalls, battered felt hat switched to a 50-cent straw in summer, wide blue eyes forever bemused by the wonders of the world of nature. That same wide-eyed wonder was on his face as a husky blonde baby taking in the view from his mother's lap. Contrary to the assumption that horticulture aptitude was to spring full grown from a York County cornfield, the baby already had two solid generations of addicted amateur horticulturists behind him.

In the final years Gable was often asked to reflect on his life's work. He spoke regretfully of not having done more with the lepidotes and the natives, particularly deciduous azaleas. He wished for more time for backcrossing.

The perfect red-flowered rhododendron which he and Guy Nearing had schemed for in their crosses 40 years before was still to be achieved, as was the true hardy yellow to which he aspired in the last years. Hardiness was still an elusive and puzzling factor. The eastern nursery trade still peddled mostly Roseum and a few Ironclads. In short, there was still much to be done, a lot more information to work with and he only wished he could hang around to see the outcome.

Joe Gable's legacy continues. Several of his friends have been at work tirelessly in a Gable Study Group, formed by the Potomac Valley Chapter of the ARS and dedicated to locating the rhododendrons and azaleas originating with Gable, and correlating the records so that those who carry on will have the benefit of his experience. Once can almost hear him chuckle as he adds "and his mistakes".

The American Rhododendron Society at its 1976 convention at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, gave Joe Gable its First Pioneer Award posthumously in recognition of his important work. Many of his children and grandchildren were present to share in his honor. Surely he would have said that there were many more persons who deserve to share in this recognition, and hopefully soon!

Which Gable plants wouldn't I be without here in the east? Here are my prejudiced choices:

Gable Evergreen Azaleas
'Big Joe'
'Indian Summer'
'Jimmey Coover'
'Louise Gable'
'Mary Dalton'
'Mildred Mae'
'Purple Splendor'
'Rose Greeley'

Gable Lepidote Hybrids and Selections
'Conewago Improved'
Gable selection, R. augustinii
Gable selection, pink R. mucronulatum
Gable selection, R. racemosum

Gable Large Leafed Rhododendrons
'Annie Dalton'
'County of York'
'David Gable'
'Mary Belle'
'Maxhaem Salmon'
'Red Head'
'Strawberry Swirl'
R. vernicosum #18139

Dr. West, Pine Barrens Chapter member, is co-editor of Hybrids and Hybridizers, 1978, Harrowood Books, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. He has long been interested in the life and work of Joseph B. Gable.