In 1931, the depths of the Depression, a group of Long Beach professional people formed The California Begonia Society. There were several educators, a realtor, an attorney, local nurserymen, and others. The group soon looked to the neighboring towns for other Begonia enthusiasts and among them was Alfred D. Robinson of Point Loma near San Diego whose influence was soon felt, it was he who suggested that the young group nationalize its scope and The American Begonia Society was founded. Until his death on February 26, 1942, Robinson gave benevolent guidance to the ABS and in his memory the Alfred D. Robinson Memorial Medal was authorized by the ABS board of directors in May 1947.
Born to a cultured family in Waton, England on October 9, 1866, Robinson, a younger son, had prepared for a career in the ministry but came to the United States in 1887 at age 21, heading for California where he aspired to become a cattle rancher. A short period as a cowboy took care of that ambition. During a stay in San Francisco, he met and in 1895 married Marion James Duncan, the only child of a wealthy couple, Hilarian and Charlotte Duncan.
Following the birth of their first daughter, Larona, on December 28, 1901, the Robinsons moved to Point Loma where they purchased an acreage at 510 Silvergate Avenue, built a large residence and several outbuildings; eventually a Begonia garden which became the showplace for the genus Begonia in California was created on the property frontage.
Marion Robinson’s inheritance permitted the family to live comfortably. Their second child, Charlotte Duncan Robinson, was born in August 1908. The older daughter Larona passed away in 1910. Marion Robinson died in 1919.
Robinson’s hobby from 1902 until his wife’s death had been the breeding, raising, and showing of the Rosecroft strain of Barred Rock chickens, which he exhibited from Los Angeles to New York; but from 1902 he was also involved in San Diego County’s horticultural future, including the collecting and growing of Begonia.
In 1909 Robinson was one of the founders of the San Diego Floral Association and was the first editor of its publication, California Gardens. In the struggle to get these endeavors launched he sometimes gave not only his talents but his funds to keep things going. He had great interest in plant shows, but at the same time instilled civic pride in developing all the arts. He encouraged the establishment of botanical gardens and street tree planting. He assembled plants from all parts of the world for the first exposition grounds in Balboa Park, San Diego. His inspiration and advice were a great factor in the beautification of San Diego and its environs.
Robinson’s location on Point Loma was perhaps the most ideal for growing Begonia as it is situated on a peninsula running south from the mainland, forming and enclosing San Diego Bay, the peninsula is only one mile wide at Rosecroft and has the Pacific Ocean to the west; the warm water of San Diego Bay is on the east; these provide a cool, humid atmosphere with a uniformly mild climate.
Begonia collecting at Rosecroft began with Robinson’s purchasing plants throughout the United States; he imported Begonia seed from Europe; he obtained plants early from Theodosia Burr Shepherd in Ventura; he exchanged plants with San Diego growers, Eva Kenworthy Gray, W. M. Grant, Constance Bower, and Chauncy Vedder. Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Fewkes helped in propagating plants for him in their San Diego nursery during his last decade.
In 1920, Robinson married Annie Louise Colby, a friend of the family, 26 years his junior, who was a nurse in training at a San Diego hospital. Five children were born to them: Marion Louise in 1921, now Mrs. Richard A. Smith of Los Angeles, mother of four; Virginia May in 1923, now Mrs. Frank Perkins of San Diego, mother of two; Alfred D. Robinson, Jr., in 1924, now of Duarte, father of seven; Margaret Ann in 1926, now Mrs. Charles Curtis of Ramona, mother of five; Richard Michael in 1930, now of College Station, Texas, father of four.
Charlotte Duncan Robinson, Robinson’s second daughter by his first wife, died in 1931; it is reported that at this time Robinson destroyed all his diaries kept during his marriage to Marion.
Because of his interest in the California Begonia Society Robinson gave it his full support, hosting it on June 3, 1934, for its regular monthly meeting, at Rosecroft Begonia Gardens. After a picnic lunch, Robinson told the group that he felt the Begonia society was too good a thing to keep just for Californians and that it should be shared with the whole country, suggesting a name change to The American Begonia Society. With over one hundred members present a motion was made and passed to change the name from California Begonia Society to American Begonia Society. Robinson contributed 36 articles to the early California Society Bulletins and to The Begonian, sharing his wealth of knowledge with the members from February 1934 until his death in 1942. He was one of the first advertisers in the March 1936 Bulletin and later The Begonian.
Robinson issued but never dated his catalogues, Rosecroft’s Begonia Guide; he used them until he felt a new one was needed. He kindly marked for us the 1927 and 1929 tuberous begonia seed list, and the 1930, 1931, 1934, and 1935 supplements. In the catalogue for 1934 he marked his hybrids and the dates he produced them.
When Robinson first started hybridizing Begonia, “tree-type” (tall cane like) hybrids such as Begonia ‘Corallina de Lucerna’ were his favorites. These included:
1920 – B. ‘Orrell’, ‘Lugano’, ‘Helen W. King’, and ‘Rosie Murphiski’.
1922 – B. ‘Maybelle E.’.
1924 – B. ‘Serra-Belle’.
1933 – (named for European lakes) B. ‘Bellargio’, ‘Codelargo, ‘Maggiore’, ‘Neuchatel’, ‘Lecco’, ‘Alzasco’, ‘Constance’, ‘Interlaken’, ‘Mussolini’, ‘Palu’, ‘Rigi’, and ‘Tanay’; his last catalogue lists B. ‘Lucendro’ also.
The tree forms of the Rubra type also attracted Robinson and he produced the following hybrids:
1930 – B. ‘Shasta’, ‘Mrs. W. D. Harney’, ‘Mrs. Schinkle’, Rubra Odorata’, ‘Rubra Dielytra’, ‘Martha’, ‘Jinnie Mae’, ‘Mary’, ‘Shrimp Rubra’, ‘Grace’, ‘Robego’, and ‘Jean’.
1932 – B. ‘Bennett Rubra’, and ‘Pink Shasta’
1934 – B. ‘Audree’, ‘Elithe’, ‘Lady Low’, ‘Velma S.’, ‘Clemmence’, ‘Louise Rubra’ ABS reg #90 , ‘Lillian S. Rubra’, ‘Marge Rubra’ ABS reg #357, ‘Erna Rubra’, ‘Rose Rubra, ‘Arlene’ and ‘Annie Laurie’; his last catalogue also lists B. ‘Rubra Fragrance’ and ‘Annabelle’.
Robinson also produced:
1924 – working with the Begonia rex cultorum group he produced: (large-leaf types) B. ‘K. O. Sessions’, ‘Sea Nymph’, and ‘Poincare’; (medium sized leaves) B. ‘Mrs. Frevert’, ‘Moonbeam’, ‘A.D. Davis’, ‘Mrs. Drew’, and later Begonia ‘Hilda’, ‘Alfreana’, and ‘Kathleana’. He was also responsible for producing B. ‘Marion’, ‘Sharstar’, ‘Pink MacBethii’, and ‘Glaucadaw’.
1925 – B. ‘Undine’ (intermediate bush type), ‘Richard Robinson’ (low-growing branching type), ‘Prunifolia’ (B. scharffiana group).
1931 – B. ‘Scotch Luxurians’ which he grew from seed received from Scotland was later identified as B. mollicaulis; he had ordered it as B. luxurians. Another plant Robinson listed in the 1931 Rosecroft’s Begonia Guide as B. ‘Schnitzeri’ was found to be B. sutherlandii; he had given it the first name, he explained with a twinkle in his eye, because he had “snitched” a cutting in a park in San Francisco!
1933 – B. ‘Frutescans’ (B. scharffiana group).
1936 – B. ‘Undermille’.
Annie Robinson was also interested in hybridizing and produced:
1937 – B. ‘Dianna’
1939 – B. ‘DiErna’, and still later B. ‘Di-Shasta’. She also produced a tuberous strain by crossing B. ‘Ricinifolia’ with B. micranthera fimbriata (B. cinnibarina) to obtain the “Rosecroft Strain” of tuberous begonias.
When Alfred D. Robinson died in February 1942, he left Mrs. Robinson well provided for. She kept the nursery operating until April 1943 when it was closed due to World War Il. In September 1946 the nursery’s sale ended the “Golden Days of Rosecroft.” Mrs. Robinson married Clarence P. Tedford in 1960; he passed away in 1977. Mrs. Tedford died in Los Angeles October 19, 1981. Her sister, May, now Mrs. Samuel E. Brode of Santa Barbara, and her daughter, Mrs. Smith, were most helpful in furnishing details of the personal history of Robinson.
One of the first acts in the American Begonia Society to memorialize Alfred D. Robinson was the formation of the Alfred D. Robinson Branch of the ABS in the San Diego area; the organizing meeting was at Rosecroft Begonia Garden in November 1942; it is still an active branch.
At the annual meeting of the ABS on November 7, 1942, in Glendale, the ABS membership voted to establish the Alfred D. Robinson Memorial Exhibit, a perpetual display of living plants to be established and maintained at Lincoln Park, Los Angeles, to honor the memory of the Dean of Begonias”. It was maintained in a glasshouse by the ABS until October 1945 when the park officials ordered it removed as the space was needed for other purposes.
The Alfred D. Robinson Award was originated in 1947 for the most outstanding ABS registered Begonia hybrid produced by a member of ABS. The original motion was made by Mrs. Mary Hazel Drummond at an ABS directors meeting on May 26, 1947: “That we establish a medal, either bronze or other material, to be given for the best seedling of fibrous, rex, or tuberous Begonia each year in the name of Alfred D. Robinson, and that the medal be called ‘The Alfred D. Robinson Medal.” After the motion was passed, ABS president George Lawrence appointed a committee to work out details. The original requirements for the medal by the committee were printed in the June 1948 the Begonian, page 132.
The first Alfred D. Robinson awards were presented in Santa Barbara on May 16, 1954, by Awards Chairman Edna Korts. Elsie M. Frey received the first for Begonia ‘Silver Star’ produced in 1945, and Rudolf Ziesenhenne received the second for B. ‘Freddie’, produced in 1946; the award for 1947 was given to Leslie Woodriff’s B. ‘Orange Rubra’.
Since its inception Alfred D. Robinson award requirements have been changed. The current rules state:
- All Begonia nominees must have been registered with the ABS Nomenclature Director.
- The originator of the Begonia nominee must be a member of the ABS.
- The Begonia nominee must have been released to the public for at least five years but not more than ten years prior to nomination.
We quote A. M. Rainford’s tribute to Alfred D. Robinson, upon his passing, in the California Garden of April 1942, Vol. 3, No. 9: “Left now is only the imprint of a gay and genial spirit. He was a liegeman to the amenities, our mentor and leader in so many directions, a gardener first and always and an eminence in the field of horticulture that will long continue. This oak in our midst, so sturdily rooted in good California soil, so benignly spread and of such sure understanding of the smaller growth about. . . has been cut.”
We visited Robinson at Rosecroft several times from 1935 on and were impressed by the perfect order of his garden and the large specimen begonias he had in his lathhouse; a picture in his catalogue shows two six-foot B. ‘Jessie’ flanking the library door; there were huge specimens of B. ‘Odorata Alba’ in the neat beds towering over the smaller plants. A wisteria trailed along the ceiling.
Robinson visited us once, in August 1941, about three months before Pearl Harbor. He was dignified, kindly, and appreciative, but we felt he was discouraged by world conditions and the wartime trauma in the English homeland he had left 54 years before as a youth of 21. He was a little weary, perhaps, but vitally interested, encouraging and inspiring as far as Rudy’s collection was concerned — the collection which the originator of the first plant to receive the Alfred D. Robinson award, the late Elsie M. Frey, would care for for three years until the war ended and Rudy was released from civilian duty at the Naval Materiel Shipping Base (Pacific Naval Air Bases), Port Hueneme.
In the afternoon we drove Robinson to Ojai to visit Verna and Henry Flaitz and to show him their beautiful hillside landscaped mostly with huge Rex cultorum and other begonias. We then drove to Ventura to see the lovely backyard Begonia and fern garden of Katherine and Herman Weitz, where we dined with other Ventura ABS members. We were grieved when a scant six months later we heard that he had passed away.
Recipients of the Alfred D. Robinson Medal can be viewed here.