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The Long Island "Johnny Appleseed" of Robin Hill

By Jim Fry

Robert Gartrell of Wyckoff, NJ started in 1937 to produce hardy azaleas and by the 1960s he had named the best as "Robin Hill Hybrids". These hybrids had big flowers (many of which are doubles), were low to the ground, and were of various colors. The hardiness was attributed to the Satsukis he used as parents. Many of us have a few of these hybrids in our own gardens but only a few are aware of the efforts of a few NY Chapter members in distributing these varieties among the Rhododendron and Azalea world and, by doing so, assured these lovely plants a place in Azalea history. This is the story of one of our members:

In 1972 Betty Hager and Frank Arsen traveled to Bob Gartrell's nursery in Wyckoff NJ. Betty introduced Frank to Bob and, after a bit, they discovered that they hit it off pretty good. As a result of this mutual admiration, Bob Gartrell gave Frank four cuttings of each of his best 20 to 30 hybrids with the understanding that Frank was to distribute them among the membership but he was not supposed to make a profit on them. Frank accepted the cuttings with the non-profit provision. These hybrids either carried the "Robin Hill" name or were just identified with a number code (T-37-7 for example).

Trouble was it was late in the season for the traditional way of rooting cuttings. This meant that the easy way of distributing these cuttings to the other members so they could root them was out of the question. What was needed was someone who had a mist system already set up, bottom heat to help root growth, and was willing to take on the responsibility. There was only one person that fit the bill and that was Ray Kruse.

Off to Ray's place in Northport the little cuttings were rushed by Frank and Betty. Ray took over the next phase of getting the cuttings to root and for the next 6-8 weeks misted and babied them. Then, when they were finally rooted, they were brought down to Frank's house in Lindenhurst to be wintered over in his attic under fluorescent lights on a make-shift table of 4x8 plywood. All during the winter these little plants got a jump on the growing cycle by throwing their first growth when they should have been dormant. As a result of this they were in good condition to be distributed among the other members. Some were kept to grow on in Frank and Gay's garden but the rest were distributed over the next 3-4 years. Whenever Frank visited other chapters he always brought along the "Robin Hills".

Once, when Frank was at the Philadelphia chapter's meeting, Bob Gartrell was admiring one of the hybrids. He hadn't glimpsed the tag on the plant but remarked that it was quite lovely looking. Frank told him that it was one of Bob's hybrids. Bob, in turn, said that it looked much nicer now then when he first hybridized it.

In addition to the NY and Philadelphia chapters, the Connecticut chapter got their share, the Fuquas got some to grow on, Art Fraser of Columbia Nurseries, Alexandria VA received 20 plants, Matt Nosal of Holly Heath Nurseries helped distribute plants from the ones he received, and Jim Cross got some mature plants. As a result of these efforts, the Gartrell hybrids are appreciated by many, many people.

For his efforts over the years in promoting these hybrids Frank honored his agreement of not receiving any monetary gains. To me that exemplifies the true spirit of our non-profit chapter. Eventually, Frank did receive some sort of recognition for his efforts when P-25-6 was named ‘Frank Arsen’ by John Boggerman of the Tappanzee Chapter.

How many of these plants are in your garden?

Antoine, Betty Anne Voss, Betty Layman, Blue Tip, Bob White, Chanson, Christie, Conversation Piece, Corry, Dorothy Hayden, Dorothy Rees, Early Beni, Eliza Scott, Eric, Eunice Updike, George Harding, Glamora, Glencora, Gresham, Greta, Gwenda, Hilda Niblett, Jeanne Weeks, La Belle Helene, Lady Louise, Lady Robin, Laura Morland, Madame Mab Chalon, Maria Derby, Maxine West, Mrs. Emil Hager, Mrs. Villars, Nancy of Robinhill, Nigel, Olga Niblett, Ormsby, Papineau, Pat Erb, Peg Hugger, Peter Pooker, Pucken, Redmond, Red Tip, Richie, Robin Dale, Robin Hill Congo, Robin Hill Elsa, Robin Hill Frosty, Robin Hill Gillie, Robin Hill Palmyra, Robin Hill Rosanne, Robin Hill Wendy, Roddy, Sara Holden, Scott Gartrell, Sherbrook, Sir Robert, Spink, Talbot, Tamino, Tan Dilly, Turk's Cap, Verena, Watchet, Wee Willie, Welmet, White Hart, Whitehead, White Moon.

Jim Fry, ARS, NY Chapter