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Journal ARS Article

 Vol. 54: No. 4: Year 2000

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The Gable Letters

Richard H. Gustafson
Lawrenceville, New Jersey

During the period between the late 1920s and early 1950s Joseph Gable and Guy Nearing communicated with one another on a regular basis. This took the form of an extraordinary series of letters stimulated by their intense mutual interest in the genus Rhododendron. Most of their correspondence has been preserved and reveals that both were remarkable men, bringing diverse backgrounds and personalities to a discussion of their common interests. Some parts of Nearing's letters to Gable have been reproduced in the book Hybrids and Hybridizers edited by Livingston and West. The reciprocal letters, those from Gable to Nearing, were not available until just before the book went to press, but fortunately it was possible to include a sampling of Gable's letters in an eleventh hour supplement at the end of the book. The letters written by both men were the products of individuals who felt the need to communicate their thoughts to one another, beyond the opportunities provided by their occasional visits. These were the days when a national economic depression, followed by a world war, affected the lives of everyone. Communications by post were common and long distance calls by people who had phones in their homes were reserved for very important occasions. It was also a more formal era when reluctance initially to address one's peers by Christian names seemed natural and proper. It was after ten years and more than a hundred letters that Nearing suggested that they address one another by their three-letter names in the interest of "saving ink." The manpower shortage during the war, as well as the modest and irregular nature of their incomes, meant that each had to put in long hours of extensive labor without help. Both Gable and Nearing pursued their interests with a keen attention to the costs of everything. Most of the correspondence was attended to at odd hours, when bad weather prevented work out of doors or when Gable's volunteer service as a wartime aircraft spotter kept him awake at his post until the wee hours. The correspondence sheds light on their intellect and character, and their insatiable appetite for knowledge concerning rhododendrons.

Joseph Gable was a man who supported himself and his family in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, with a nursery devoted principally to the production of ericaceous plants, as well as with orchards yielding an annual apple crop. As a "doughboy" in England during WWI, he had seen the rhododendrons at Hillier's Nursery and was immediately attracted to them. Guy Nearing had the benefit of the more impressive formal education, undergraduate and graduate studies from Ivy League schools, and a Phi Beta Kappa. Joe Gable had been a precocious child of surpassing intelligence and his intellectual interests flowed naturally in his family, particularly from his paternal grandfather. Joe's letterhead proclaimed that he was a "Nurseryman and Fruit Grower," with the added messages, "Specializing in Azaleas and Rhododendrons" and "Choice Apples in Season." The large body of preserved correspondence sometimes reveals personal glimpses of his life, but also presents the picture of a man driven to learn firsthand what he could about the many species of rhododendrons to hybridize and produce improved varieties and to communicate extensively with people of like mind. Without hesitation, Gable sought the opinions of the reigning experts in the field. His English correspondents included Lionel de Rothschild at Exbury in Hampshire and Edward J.P. Magor at Lamellen in Cornwall. These British experts generously provided seed and pollen for Gable's pioneering efforts in the United States. Magor was especially faithful in sending seed and pollen just about every year, but the benign Cornish climate allowed the production of plants usually unsuitable for inland Pennsylvania. Plants were also acquired from George Fraser and Endre Ostbo. Dr. Ernest "Chinese" Wilson and Professor C.S. Sargent also corresponded with Joe Gable, as did Theodore Van Veen, David Leach, Orlando Pride, Charles Dexter and many others. One of the important sources of plant material for Gable and Nearing was seed from the 1929 plant expedition of Joseph Rock. These were grown out and carefully examined by Gable and Nearing for taxonomic veracity, with the ultimate decision sometimes made that the label was incorrect. Although our modern judgment may lead us to consider that Gable was excessively optimistic in his efforts to grow tender rhododendron species such as Rhododendron griersonianum, R. decorum, R. arboreum, R. sinogrande, R. griffithianum, and others, it should be noted that both he and Nearing wanted to develop firsthand knowledge on hardiness for their region of the United States. They did not have the advantage of appropriate information that is so accessible now. Gable and Nearing expected that tender species might produce acceptable hybrids when crossed with R. catawbiense, R. maximum, R. dauricum, R. mucronulatum, R. brachycarpum and other hardy sorts. Thanks to these and other plantsmen who worked with new varieties in the first half of the 20th century, modern hybridizers have available an impressive rhododendron gene pool and a large supply of transcribed experience and data.

The preserved letters mailed from Stewartstown to Nearing total 642 pages, the first third handwritten, most of the remainder typewritten single spaced by Gable. Presented here is a balanced selection of Gable's unpublished observations on species, old hybrids, new hybrids, proposed crosses, theories of hybridizing, hardiness, cultural practices, etc. Occasionally other excerpts have been included only to shed light on the personality and character of the man and a flavor of the times in which the letters were written. 

The British Influence

June 2, 1930

Dear Mr. Nearing,

I only hope that they prove to be griersonianum since it is quite certain that they are not true to the names under which I bought the seeds.  Mr. L. de Rothschild recommends griersonianum very highly and states in his letter that it will flower very readily at four years from seed.

From England this season I have pollen of R. haematodes, 'Shilsonii', campylocarpum, campylocarpum x aucklandii, 'Loderi', augustinii, sulfureum, moupinense, 'Cornubia' x sutchuenense, sutchuenense, and a number of others and I have placed it on catawbiense and catawbiense hybrids instead of keeping it for maximum as I did last season...[Note: aucklandii is now known as griffithianum; by 'Loderi' Gable was referring to the Loderi grex, now known as Loderi Group.]

April 8, 1940

Mr. Magor has sent me again seven packets of seed and I am enclosing you a part. Sometimes I think I shall sow no more seed of these species of doubtful value but somehow I keep on. One of these sorts, brachycarpum x discolor, has much perplexed and aggravated me also. Mr. Magor has sent me seeds of this hybrid of his at least a dozen times and to show for them I have just two plants large enough to bloom and only one of them is really a healthy plant. It is very good in my estimation and I recall your admiring it... The other is a freak thing that dies back, does not look like it is true but occasionally succeeds in opening a few very lovely soft pink blossoms very early, whereas they should be late. [Note: discolor is now known as fortunei ssp. discolor.] 

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Weather

March 8, 1932

Dear Mr. Nearing,

We were below Baltimore on Sunday and battled snow drifts and icy sleet for the last 15 miles but succeeded in reaching home, though my fingers are frosted a little. Every house along the road here was filled with snowbound travelers, some of them only a mile or two from home. One neighbor tells me he kept seventeen and another, I hear, had the occupants of twelve autos all night. Here we had no one, but perhaps because we were away, as two automobiles were stranded out front when we arrived home. I had thought of going to the Philadelphia show this week and may, but I don't care to repeat the experience of Sunday...

May 4, 1936

A light rain is falling for which we are grateful but there was a little hail with it which wasn't so good so we have had more injury from falling ice than we can check up on so far. Flower buds that were not broken off were often bent and loosened, and are consequently not opening.

September 29,1938

I was very apprehensive that the hurricane would do you damage from the reports we were getting on the radio, etc., that I knew were not far from your section. This storm never touched us as far as the wind was concerned but from half past one to five forty five on that Tuesday we had over five inches of rain. Of course that had to go somewhere and in doing so took some things with it but really the damage was negligible to what we had before. All the water could run down the same gutters that the first storm had made.

February 15, 1940

Finally I have gotten the seeds ready and here they are. Kept busy outdoors in all that good weather but took advantage of the blizzard to do this. We did not have much snow, but wind - about eighteen hours of hurricane and almost zero last night. I have not sown my seeds yet for we are out of water. Frozen up for the first time since before the war. Grave diggers say there is about two and one half feet of frozen soil so no wonder it reaches the pipes. It takes an hour or more every day to haul enough water for the day, except rainy days. 

March 21, 1940

If patience and persistence have their reward, yours should certainly be an abundant one. I think I should have given up long ago if I had been afflicted by the floods in any such measure as you have been. There is absolutely nothing that worries me less here than floods on my rhododendrons. Sometimes my fields are washed a little but this year I had the place laid out on the contour by the C.C.C. lads. I am far from a New Dealer in toto but I do think this angle of the soil conservation idea is the only sensible thing to do where it can be put into practice. Perhaps if your drainage basin were so managed your floods would be much abated too.

Family Time

February 19, 1932

Have kept house this afternoon with the boy while my wife went out and I spent the time writing symposium, pressing a specimen of the s. for Edinburgh, etc., and now having the above on the road and junior interested for the moment, will try to write.

January 3, 1944

Thanks much for your Christmas Day letter and that bit of most intriguing verse... This is the first Christmas that our family has not been at home. Elizabeth is in Denver, a dietitian in the Fitzsimmons Army Hospital. In fact she is on army duty and subject to be sent anywhere. The rest of us were at home and had a very orthodox celebration. But so many of our close relatives are in the service that the visiting did not seem to have the usual pep. One of my wife's nephews has been a Jap prisoner since the sinking of the Houston, on which he was third in command, in the battle of the Java sea in February 1942.

July 13, 1944

Here things will have to be curtailed along most all lines. My boy who graduated from high school in June leaves in August for the University of Pennsylvania for a nine month course in preparation for army service. He is several inches taller than his dad and was 17 in February. He has helped a lot in his time out of school and the work will suffer another setback when he goes. 


March 16, 1932

A plant of R. racemosum x R. mucronulatum will be in full flower over the coming weekend. It will have 60 to 75 flowers in a well shaped plant and bears good foliage... The other plant I had forced of the same hybrid is now fading a little but both of these plants bear abundant pollen and I play bumble bee every morning.

March 24,1932

I opened this letter again to tell you that as near as I can say I have 132 species a year old and older. Included in this number some ten or a dozen varieties of racemosum, oleifolium, obtusum, kaempferi, yedoense, poukhanense, etc. Also there are 107 hybrid sorts, of which 61 are of my origination. Now I'll leave this letter open until I finish cleaning up the desk. [Note: oleifolium is now known as virgatum ssp. oleifolium; poukhanense is now known as yedoense var. poukhanense.]

April 2, 1932

I must beg your pardon for bothering you so much with correspondence but often if I do not write what is on my mind, I forget. In the first place I would like to have a dozen prints of the photograph of the racemosum x mucronulatum hybrid you took up at the rock garden. I will gladly pay you for them and will not use them for publication without your permission. I just want to send them to some of my correspondents. 

April 21,1932

And a few flowers are out on racemosum. This last species has suffered the loss of many flower buds this season for the first time but there are many left to flower...racemosum x mucronulatum holds its flowers well outdoors, a temperature of 26 not effecting them at all when fully open, and which killed all flowers on racemosum 56363 Rock x carolinianum [Note: now R. minus Carolinianum Group]. 

April 6, 1933

I just had a letter from Professor Goodspeed [University of California Botanical Gardens] and unaccountably lost it. It contained a map of the sections where Rock collected for them... These seeds were collected from four different areas and in only one of them did Dr. Rock collect personally but from what I understand the native collectors sent their collection of flowers to him. He selected those desirable and sent them back in autumn to collect seeds from the numbers selected which were marked by the collectors when the flowers were taken. Lots of chances for a slip up but perhaps all right. Forrest did a lot of this kind of collecting seeds too and some of Forrest's best introductions were never seen in the wild by Forrest himself, by his own admission.

June 10, 1934

I think there should be some chance of getting a hardy yellow rhododendron by crossing maximum with some of the yellow flowered sorts, as quite a few maximum tend toward a cream color and I am working toward that end. If brachycarpum ever flowers and some of them prove to be cream, as sometimes described, or fauriei, we will have there another good foundation plant for breeding a hardy yellow variety. R. chrysanthum also sounds good but I fear that is farther in the future. [Note: fauriei is now known as brachycarpum ssp. fauriei; chrysanthum is now known as aureum var. aureum.] 

April 8, 1940 

Just as soon as it gets fit to plant I will be so busy I will only get to see my plants sometime before seven in the morning and it seems to be harder all the time to get up at five after a hard day's work. So I make less and less crosses which is probably all the better if those that I do make are the best that offer. I have made a lot that are not worth anything but I seemed to have no other way at the time to learn better.

Caroline is in the Maryland General Hospital recovering from an operation for appendicitis and one of her girlfriends was operated on just a day earlier. There seems to be an "epidemic" of it around here at present.

Opinions and Observations

May 19, 1935

I want to go on record as saying that R. glaucum has the loveliest flower I have yet seen in lepidote rhododendron species. Its pink is absolutely pure and the texture of the flower gives it a waxen appearance. And the next loveliest lepidote species that has flowered here is our old chartophyllum praecox . I no longer wonder why the Chinese cultivate no other species. [Note: R. glaucum is now known as glaucophyllum; chartophyllum praecox is now known as yunnanense.]

January 12, 1936

Our R. chrysanthum has aroused my suspicion more because it seems so amenable to cultivation than because of any other one character I know, though I am aware that its leaves are larger than the description given by the botanical authorities. I have wondered if it might turn out to be R. fauriei...Also I have wondered if the line of demarcation between the three species, brachycarpum, chrysanthum and fauriei is really well drawn in Nature and if they do not merge gradually with more or less intermediate forms. R. chrysanthum var niko-montanum, the erect growing form, may represent one such intermediate form. [Note: chrysanthum var. nikomontanum is now believed to be a cross of aureum x brachycarpum.]

August 5, 1936

When I reached home I found that many of my plants too had suffered from sunburn, decorum being the worst offender , followed closely by 'Loderi' and fortunei, while discolor, vernicosum 18139R and oreodoxa seem quite unharmed in this series. I notice wild azaleas and maples, yews, firs, and spruces also burned. 

June 10, 1940

Well, the two starred 'Gomer Waterer' has come along at last and how it rates two stars is beyond me. One way I judge the named hybrids is by thinking what I should think of that plant if it occurred among my own seedling hybrids. 'Gomer Waterer' should certainly fall in the discard if so judged. 

April 18, 1943 

I am writing from an airplane observation post where I spend the lonely hours from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sundays, mostly trying to stay awake. A most petulant spell of spring weather has done a lot of damage to early flower buds, mostly last Wednesday night when we had about ten degrees of frost and high winds. R. keiskei was showing a lot of buds with the florets peeping from the bud scales. Something over 90% are killed. R. racemosum was in the same condition showing color in many buds. It is injured very little if at all. R. racemosum x keiskei is intermediate in injury but some plants of this are about as bad as keiskei while others will apparently be quite unharmed as racemosum. These are of course F2 seedlings from Magor.

April 8, 1951

Right here I want to ask you something I have been meaning to ask for years and always forget while I am writing. How do you label your crosses, seed parent first, or the opposite? George Fraser and Magor both stressed to me the importance of placing the name of the seed parent first but I have never read anything about it from authoritative sources. What makes me ask is that some of your labels name combinations of which I believe I sent you pollen but if so, you have placed the pollen parent's name first in your combination? I have always placed the seed parent name ahead , except when I made an unintentional slip, which I know happened with some seedlings of discolor x 'Caroline'. I have a hundred or more plants with this tagged in reverse which would be impossible as 'Caroline' blooms almost two months before discolor. [Note: This statement by Gable suggests that the commonly accepted parentage of 'Cadis' and 'Robert Allison' is incorrectly reversed, that they are in fact the same breeding as 'Disca'. I have seen nothing in Gable's many comments about pollen sources indicating that he saved pollen from one season to another.]

April 7, 1952

Am enclosing a print of 'Cadis' though I think you got slides of it yourself last year. I regard it as a hybrid of promise. It is extremely floriferous but we cut so many scions it hurts the show. Sometimes it has three trusses on one terminal.

Well I must get to bed. Tomorrow starts this crazy daylight saving. We have it here but so many communities do not change that that we never know if we are going to get there before we start, wait an extra hour for an appointment, or in case we go to Dauphin where they say the borough council came to a tie vote and decided to move the clock up a half hour, well it is just an uncalled-for mess.

An Inexperienced Typist

April 5, 1937

No I have not hired a stenographer. I am doing it all myself (Columbus System, i.e., explore until one finds the proper key , then land on it). Business is so good this spring that I do not seem to get time to do anything for myself. There is such a lot of transplanting and repotting to be done around here that I don't like to look around too much for fear that I may find something to do that I hadn't seen before...

This is not a remarkably long letter but it has taken a remarkably long time to write it so I must sign off.

[Note: Gable's first typed letter was also his shortest, one half page in length.]


April 18, 1936

I think it is unfortunate that R. decorum was used in 'Decatros' but to be sure it was all I had at the time. So many seedlings inherit the bud tenderness of that species. But by far it is the most floriferous lot of broad leaf seedlings I ever grew and some clones may prove bud hardy as some buds seem quite unharmed even above the snow line... In the spring of 1929 I sowed seeds of catawbiense x haematodes, catawbiense x 'Loderi', catawbiense compactum x 'Loderi', and catawbiense x 'Cornubia'. There seems to be no doubt that some of these constitute most of the batch of seedlings I have raised under catawbiense x haematodes, through some mix up. But what pleases me is that this lot of hybrid seedlings are the hardiest broad leaf hybrids I possess, surpassing in this respect some of our named "ironclads" such as 'Amphion', 'Chas. Dickens', et. al... [Note: It is now uncertain whether catawbiense compactum is a compact selection from catawbiense or a hybrid.] 

May 17, 1945

This question of hardiness is enough to drive one crazy, truly if a person who devotes too much of his time to growing and hybridizing new rhododendrons in this part of the world can be driven any farther in that direction...It is unwise, unethical and unfair to knowingly grow and sell a thing that is not hardy, we are taught. But when red maples and young cottonwoods have their bark peeled by frost shall we call them tender ? Obviously there is a certain amount of liability to frost damage in this and other unusual circumstances that must be tolerated even in the subjects that we advertise as hardy.

Then there is a little town of Felton only nine miles from my home where it seems impossible to grow any azaleas and very few rhododendrons. It is located in a hole in the York County hills which rise all around it from 200 to 300 feet. Shall we call only those things hardy that are uninjured in these frost pockets ?

I am well known in Felton. The old original Gable homestead is there from which my grandfather and his sixteen brothers were apprenticed out to their different callings - my grandfather to a charcoal burner. He only went to school two months in his life but when he died he willed me his books, among which are Rollins' Ancient History, Clark's Commentary on the Bible, Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, The Works of Lord Byron, Original and Unabridged, a work on raising trout from the spawn, a three volume treatise on blacksmithing, an Encyclopedia Brittanica, etc., all of which show unmistakable signs of much use. So I have many friends in Felton but I have not sold an azalea to anyone who lives along Main Street in many a year. 

Cultural Practices

August 26, 1936

Should have written you before but this drought requires my presence among the plants almost every daylight hour. I have had some trouble with chlorosis with both rhododendrons and azaleas and tried the ferrous sulfate treatment recommended in the National Nurseryman. It seems to help a lot. I raised a fine lot of seedlings this season and have already potted up some thousands of this year's cuttings. Azaleas, yews, rhododendrons, hollies, 'Rachel Biggs', dogwoods (double white), blueberries, put in in July are now mostly rooted and many are potted.

August 9, 1937

In my opinion the ferrous sulfate treatment can be overdone so perhaps it would be well not to use too much of it. The fact that it is sometimes used as a weed killer would seem to be enough to indicate that caution should be used in its application to living plants. But I did try to kill a few azaleas that I cared nothing for and it only made them look better than their healthy appearing neighbors, so I believe that azaleas at least can take a lot of it. I gave one eighteen-inch plant a soaking with about three gallons and that plant looks fine now though it was so near dead with the "yellows" that I had no hope for it. This treatment is best in early summer and is not nearly so effective when the leaves get old and hardened.

September 7, 1937

I tried indol-butyric acid on some rhododendrons and my experience was the same as yours. The cuttings would have been better off without it. It helped blueberries, killed dogwood, concolor fir, walnut (black), hurt hemlock, gave amazing results with some number of my azalea hybrids and negligible or negative responses in others, but of all things I tried it is best with the hollies. I confess I did not try many but wish I had put in more. It really seemed to work wonders...However it may be that when we learn how to treat these different subjects just right we may derive some benefit from it in all cases.

January 25, 1945

R. brachycarpum x 'Essex Scarlet', which has grown into wonderfully nice shaped plants has some buds on one and 'Atrosanguineum' x thomsonii at last shows signs of maternity, or perhaps better, puberty, this coming season. In both cases I had removed a plant or two to new locations in more sun and a few twigs were wrapped with wire too. This last hurries flowering but one must be quite careful not to leave the constriction so long as to impair its vitality to the extent of inhibiting seed production, as I did on wardii this season.

May 21, 1952

Was down to Koster's yesterday. Saw immense beds of cutting grown rhododendrons, mostly common kinds but they are building up stocks of some newer ones too. Like you, they like stem cuttings best. Van Veen uses all leaf cuttings and sends out beautiful plants and I think it would be an advantage with scarce stock.


July 13, 1944

As with you, business correspondence is piled high and gaining on me and I am refusing all orders for this fall [if] this ceiling on apples is so low I cannot make personal wages picking them. We have a splendid crop. The ceiling already set on peaches of $2.16 per bushel is going to leave a lot of growers in the red. And are they seeing red! A large grower talks of quitting right now and getting out from under his 6-800 dollar a week payroll. His help are German prisoners which he pays the government 60 cents per hour for and the government allows the prisoners up to 80 cents per day for cigarette money. On two to four hundred prisoners a right good rake off every week? The employers paid all expense of building the camp etc., some $12,000 dollars and all the government pays are the M.P. guards.

September 18, 1945

This wet summer has so adversely affected my farm crops I am sure to be in the financial doldrums before the winter ends, unless some unforeseen windfall bursts loose...I have been out of debt, for the third time in 26 years of married life, since last June. Soon it is borrow again.

Last winter and spring I made the resolution, within hearing of wife and some of the youngsters, that I was going to take care of my apples this season if I did nothing else. This resolution was kept faithfully and fully, and after the April 6 freeze, most foolishly. Now I harvest a few apples that it keeps me busy to make fifty cents an hour to pick and sell, and which have cost me in spray material, gas, and machine repairs, several times what they will bring. But I have gone through the same before and no doubt have the same experience again. But you know I believe it is worse to be so hard up in times like this, when everyone else is piling up his bank account, than it was some of the other times when one had most of the world for company.

January 25, 1946

Also had my worst season financially. My spray material alone cost more than the apple receipts and my little nursery business had to carry things, which it did not quite do. At least I had no income tax to pay. And listening to all this strike business when I would like to work so well if I could! I am just as disgusted with labor as with management. But it seems like these infantile psychologists have things under control, the President, Congress and all the people. 

Reflections on Mortality

July 2, 1945

It is too bad about your father for the real tragedy of life is not death, but growing old. And little do we know where we shall end up ourselves. Sometimes I think I shall not wish to live too long but then I wonder if it will ever happen that one will care to give up. However such things are generally solved for us and we take what comes.

October 29, 1943 

Your last letter went rather strangely astray. Louise somehow got it into her belongings when she was leaving for school and she just came across it and returned it. So only today I opened yours of October 6th. And I sincerely agree with your philosophic observations concerning making more hybrids at our age being unlikely to do any real good, but it is so interesting that I don't see how one can quit it either...It is too bad that when folks get old, as all folks must, and one would like to be more kind and helpful to them than ever before, so many of them suffer those relapses of temperament that repel us from our intended good intentions toward them. It is not generally willful on their part I think but just a combination of the physical and mental twinges incident to age that is hard on their disposition. It is a problem that one has to deal with the best he can according to the circumstances. I have had to live with a lot of old people in my younger days as my mother died when I was four. 

January 26, 1952

As with you I have reasoned for several years that it would be better for me to concentrate on growing on what I already have and in taking care of them, than to continue my crossing and starting new things. Then I generally think of an old lady customer out in Eureka, California, who was one of my first. She wrote she was nearing eighty then and was always in the market for seeds and seedlings. She said she was not doing it for the results but because she enjoyed doing it, and when she was done she was not going to give a d- "who got 'em or what happened to 'em anyhow," she was having her fun.

Then I go off and make a lot of crazy crosses again myself for her logic is about as helpful, or perhaps more helpful, than that which pretends to be more profound.


The author wishes to thank Franklin West, M.D., who provided incentive, encouragement, and extraordinary patience, as well as copies of the Gable letters. 


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