JARS v44n3 - George Fraser

George Fraser
Bill Dale
Sidney, British Columbia, Canada

"Both I and those who grow and enjoy the varieties of rhododendrons that I have concocted and disseminated owe a debt we cannot figure in dollars and cents to the kindly paternal advice and generosity of my old friend George Fraser."
Joseph Gable

The above quotation is from a letter written in 1960, sixteen years after Fraser's death, by Joseph Gable, the dean of American rhododendron hybridizers. During his lifetime, George Fraser was little known by the general public, but he was held in high regard by those who were aware of his work, such as the curators of Kew Gardens and the Arnold Arboretum and the early rhododendron growers and hybridizers. He was little interested in personal fame, but happy to share his horticultural experiences and results with others. Working alone in his nursery, which was located in a village on the remote west coast of Vancouver Island, he became known and respected by his peers as a true pioneer in his field.

George Fraser was born on October 25, 1854, at Fochabers, Morayshire, Scotland. At seventeen he apprenticed as a gardener at nearby Gordon Castle and for the next twelve years worked at several large estate gardens in Scotland. He was head gardener at the last estate on which he worked, Auchmore in Perthshire. He later recorded that in 1879, half a ton of grapes had been harvested from the large Black Homburg vine which grew there.

In 1883, he emigrated to Canada. One has to wonder why he decided to leave Scotland, where he held a position which would have given him a certain amount of prestige and security. Possibly he wanted to own property where he could develop a nursery and be his own boss. This he was eventually able to do and for the last fifty years of his life he lived on the remote west coast of Vancouver Island hybridizing new plants using his sometimes innovative methods and theories.

Fraser's first stop when he came to Canada was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he obtained work on the building of the transcontinental railway - the Canadian Pacific Railroad. At the same time, he and a partner operated a greenhouse. The long and severe winter weather of Winnipeg soon made it apparent that this was not where he wanted to live and so in 1888 he moved west to Victoria, British Columbia.

Again with a partner, he owned a fifty acre farm on the slopes of Mount Tolmie. In the city directory of that year he is listed as a "fruit and vegetable grower." In addition to working on his farm, he was foreman at the newly designed Beacon Hill Park. In 1889, he planted a group of rhododendrons near Fountain Lake in the park. The rhododendrons were purchased from Thomas Meecham & Sons of Germantown, Pennsylvania. Fraser must have planted them well as they are still flourishing today, exactly one hundred years later.

If his dream from the beginning had been to own his own nursery, he had apparently not yet found the place he considered suitable, for in 1889, he purchased 136 acres on the shores of Sproat Lake near Alberni, northwest of Victoria. It was heavily wooded and climatically not suited for a nursery. Fraser never did anything about developing it. However, Alberni is connected by a long inlet to the Pacific Ocean. It may be that while visiting Alberni, Fraser learned of the mild, humid climate of the west coast of Vancouver Island from fishermen or traders.

It must have sounded like the place he had been looking for, since on October 5,1892, he purchased lot 21, consisting of 236 acres, at Ucluelet, just north of the entrance to Barkley Sound. He and his partner sold their land in Victoria, and in 1894, Fraser moved to Ucluelet.

He had not chosen an easy place at which to make a living as a nurseryman. Ucluelet was a small settlement of farmers, loggers, Indians, missionaries, fishermen and traders. No road connected it to the settled parts of Vancouver Island. Fraser's only contact with the outside world would be by the coastal steamer from Victoria which stopped three times monthly on its way up and down the west coast of the Island. Isolation was not the only problem. The land was covered with the dense vegetation of the west coast rain forest. Fraser would literally have had to hack his way onto his land to make a clearing for his house and vegetable garden.

George Fraser was forty when he arrived at Ucluelet. Over the years, and with the kind of work we can hardly imagine, he cleared about four and a half acres.

The upper portion of the soil was thin and stony and the annual rainfall of approximately 120 inches constantly leached out the badly needed nutrients. In order to improve the drainage, Fraser built a system of underground wooden drains using split cedar planks. He provided humus by an annual dressing of seaweed and cow manure. He loaded both onto a small flat scow which he towed behind his rowboat. He then carried them up the bank to his clearing and spread them on the land.

Fraser constructed a small rooting frame in a lean-to behind his house and provided bottom heat for his rooting beds by a rather ingenious method. He dug a large hole in the ground nearby in which he placed a small wood burning heater. He then conducted the warm smoke from the heater into a series of clay tiles in the ground underneath the rooting beds and out to the atmosphere on the other side. It was many years before electricity was available to him.

Gradually his nursery developed. It became a favorite visiting place for passengers on the steamers while the freight was being off loaded. Tourists would walk up the road to visit his nursery and no doubt sometimes to buy plants. Regardless of whether they bought plants or not, they would be given a bouquet of flowers before they returned to the boat.

However, given the location of the nursery, most of its business was done by mail. George Fagerberg, foreman at the Layritz nursery in Victoria, recalled that when they received shipments of plants from Fraser's nursery, the plants would be carefully packed in sphagnum moss in wooden crates which appeared to have been constructed of pieces of driftwood.

Two copies of his catalogues indicate how his stock was developing, both in quantity and in the variety of plants available. The 1915 catalogue is entitled "List price of shrubs, etc. propagated and grown by George Fraser, Ucluelet, B.C., Canada." The title of the 1925 catalogue, "Azaleas, heaths, hollies, roses, pernettyas, rhododendrons, and other shrubs and plants including native hybrids grown by George Fraser, Ucluelet, B.C., Canada," indicates that by that time some of his own hybrids were ready to be put onto the market.

George Fraser was much interested in the native plants of Vancouver Island, and hoped, by crossing them with domestic varieties, to produce superior plants which could be introduced to the nurseries and gardens of the west coast. For example, he created a popular hybrid rose by crossing the local Nootka native with the hybrid tea, 'Richmond'. The beautiful native honeysuckle, which is not fragrant, was crossed with the European fragrant species to produce a rampant grower with fragrant blooms in spring and again in autumn, and bright coral berries that remain ornamental into the winter.

In a paper prepared by Fraser for presentation at the 1930 annual convention of the Pacific Coast Association of Nurserymen, he noted having crossed such species as forget-me-nots, campanulas, gooseberries, and a native white species of rubus which he pollenized with pollen of the purple flowering rubus of New York state. The resulting hybrid, produced in 1918 and described as a handsome shrub eight feet high with fragrant rose coloured flowers, was given the name Rubus 'Fraseri' by Alfred Rehder of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.

From the very beginning of his life in Ucluelet, Fraser had been interested in rhododendron breeding and yet his first and most important rhododendron hybrid came about almost by chance. In a shipment of cranberry plants sent to him from Nova Scotia in 1897, which he intended to cross with the local wild variety, he recognized a weed as Rhododendron canadense , the wild rhododendron of eastern Canada and the United States. He planted it separately, and fifteen years later, when it bloomed, promptly crossed it with R. japonicum .

R. 'Fraseri'
Photo supplied by Bill Dale

This cross bloomed in 1919, and later that year, he sent a budded plant to the Arnold Arboretum. When they failed to acknowledge receiving the plant, he sent another budded plant to Mr. William Watson, Curator at Kew Gardens, who in 1920 named it R. 'Fraseri'. The same year and quite independently, the Arnold Arboretum also named it R. 'Fraseri'. In 1920, Mr. Watson wrote in the Gardeners' Chronicle , "I believe that this is the first hybrid of Rhododendron canadense recorded." In 1923, "Chinese" Wilson wrote in the Gardeners' Chronicle , "A plant of this beautiful and interesting hybrid azalea, has flowered freely in the Arnold Arboretum this spring for the third year in succession." It is interesting to note that the German firm of H. Hachmann lists R. 'Fraseri' for sale in their present catalogue, some seventy years after it first bloomed for Fraser.

In 1919, George Fraser began a correspondence with Joseph Gable which was to last for the rest of his life. This connection between Ucluelet, British Columbia and Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, had a considerable influence on rhododendron hybridizing. Its beginnings were noted by Dr. John Wister in a paper he delivered at the 1961 American Rhododendron Society convention in Portland on the work of Gable, Nearing, and Dexter. In the section on Gable, Dr. Wister said:   On his return to his farm after World War I, Mr. Gable became interested in the azaleas in the nearby woodlands and wrote to Professor Charles S. Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum about the plants which turned out to be R. nudiflorum .

Professor Sargent and E.H. Wilson became interested in the young man. They encouraged him to study and grow other azaleas. They put him in touch with George Fraser, a rhododendron breeder of Ucluelet, B.C. Mr. Fraser urged him to try his hand at breeding and sent him a letter of introduction to E.J.P. Magor of Lamellen, Cornwall...

Mr. Fraser also arranged for Mr. Gable to join the Royal Horticultural Society and urged him to subscribe to the British Gardeners' Chronicle .

Fortunately, since Fraser's own records have disappeared, Gable saved Fraser's letters to him, and in 1960 sent sixty four of them to Clive Justice, then President of the Vancouver Chapter. They are now in the Provincial Archives of British Columbia. Much of our information on Fraser's work as a rhododendron and azalea hybridizer comes from these letters.

In his letters to Gable, Fraser indicated that he planted seed of R. thomsonii obtained about 1910, and seed of R. arboreum sent from India about 1912. His letters note that seed was obtained from the Edinburgh Botanic Garden, the Royal Horticultural Society, Mr. E.J.P. Magor, of Lamellen, Cornwall, and from numerous nurserymen correspondents in the United States.

From 1914 onward, he began hybridizing the local R. macrophyllum with pollen which he obtained from hardy eastern rhododendron species, to produce attractive, saleable hybrids which would be hardy away from the mild British Columbia coastal climate. He also used the west coast native, R. occidentale , as a parent plant in order to get offspring that would be fragrant.

Fraser wanted to be able to sell his hybrids before they were of blooming size, and yet be absolutely confident of their colour. As he wrote to Gable in 1929, "This spring I will confine my hybridizing to improving the strain of brightly coloured hybrids which can be grown on with confidence as to results." Eighteen separate crosses, none of which were ever named, are noted in the letters. Those that were named will be mentioned later.

In a lot of respects, Fraser was breaking new ground in the field of rhododendron hybridizing. It is important to remember that he was born at least a generation before most of those who would emerge as our foremost hybridizers. He did not have available to him the great amount of material which resulted from the discoveries of some of the later plant hunters and a lot of his time was spent testing out his own theories on hybridizing. Gable wrote to Guy Nearing in 1940, "In regard to sterility, Mr. George Fraser wrote to me years ago that hybrids that were sterile sometimes became fertile with age. He is of the old school with a lot of ideas that at least border on superstition and I put little faith in this. But now I have seen it happen in a number of cases so I must give this fine old gentleman credit. I sure wish he was young again and could go along with us as he would do most wholeheartedly."

George Fraser
George Fraser
Photo supplied by Bill Dale

Gable himself had no doubt about the debt he owed Fraser. In a letter to Nearing written in 1942, he said, "I just had a Christmas note from Mr. Fraser of Ucluelet, who first introduced me - by mail - to Mr. Magor. So to these two men more than all others - almost to the exclusion of all others - I owe my acquisitions in the first few years of my rhododendron growing."

In 1960, sixteen years after Fraser's death, Gable wrote to Clive Justice, "My first hybrids of Fortunei, Discolor and perhaps too of Decorum, were obtained through the Magor Fraser channel and much of my work has been basically built up from these crosses. I may have done the same from plants that I grew or obtained from the Arnold Arboretum, but they would have been years behind their present status."

Although they never met, and although Fraser was thirty-two years older than Gable, they became good friends through their correspondence. From Fraser's letters we gain a picture of a kindly and gentle old bachelor. He lived frugally, and apparently ate oatmeal porridge for breakfast every day, which he said, he did for two reasons: firstly, it was easy to make, and secondly, he liked it.

George Fraser with fiends
Fraser with young friends in garden.
Photo supplied by Bill Dale

He was a great favorite in the small community of Ucluelet. Children came to picnic in his garden, around his lily pond, and he would teach them things about growing plants. Like many an old bachelor, he took a great interest in his friends' lives. At Christmas time, he would send a box of holly and pernettya to Mrs. Gable, and he never forgot his Scottish friends in Winnipeg and Victoria, sending them boxes of heather in January for their Burns nights celebrations. When Marion Lee, from Ucluelet, was married in Victoria, he sent her white heather to include in her bouquet, saying that it was a Scottish tradition which would bring her good luck. He loved music and played at all local dances and school concerts. Fraser donated ten acres of land on which the Ucluelet Athletic Club house, and both the elementary and secondary schools are built, and on which their playing fields are located.

Besides R. 'Fraseri' ( R. canadense x R. japonicum ) mentioned earlier, Fraser made many crosses over the years, but named only a few. Among these were:

R. 'John Blair' ( R. arborescens x R. occidentale ). This is a late blooming, very fragrant white azalea. It was a favorite of Fraser's. He named it after his friend John Blair, the American landscape architect who designed Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, and for whom Fraser worked as foreman in 1889. There are three plants of this hybrid in the garden of Art and Mary Baird in Ucluelet. In a paper entitled, "Crossing some Pacific Coast plant species," which was prepared for presentation at the 1930 convention of the Pacific Coast Association of Nurserymen, Fraser wrote of his 'John Blair' hybrid azalea, "The seedlings of the cross show its spring spicy fragrant flowers when the plants are less than two feet high. Rhododendron occidentale has the habit of retaining its leaves through the winter and discarding them in spring, and the hybrid retains to a certain extent this persistent characteristic."

R. 'Albert Close' ( R. maximum x R. macrophyllum ). Gable raised plants from Fraser's seed and named one R. 'Albert Close' for the chief propagator at the United States Department of Agriculture Plant Introduction Station at Glenn Dale, Maryland. This plant was described by Gable as, "Hardy, late, a shy bloomer: somewhat open with attractive blue-green foliage; flowers medium size, bright rose pink with throat heavily spotted chocolate red; compact conical truss; can take sun." Plants of R. 'Albert Close' have been available from a few west coast nurseries.

R. 'George Fraser' ( R. macrophyllum x R. maximum ). The seed for this hybrid was sent to Gable by Fraser. It initially was designated R. maximum hybrid #5 but later was named R. 'George Fraser' by Joseph Gable. In Hybrids and Hybridizers edited by Philip A. Livingston and Franklin H. West, Gable is quoted as describing R. 'George Fraser' as follows: This unusual and perhaps worthwhile hybrid is from the same source (George Fraser of Ucluelet) and probably of the same, but unknown, parentage as R. 'Maxie'. Obviously the seeds from which these two hybrids were grown contained a lot of plain R. maximum and some 10-20% of hybrid seeds. In a thicket of R. maximum 10 to 12 feet high, I noticed a fine pink truss of flowers...Since the flower was so fine I immediately cut, dug and tore all the branches of R. maximum away, since then it has developed amazingly.

It is of what is termed the weeping habit, all branches drop sharply downwards along the stem so that all branches from a depth of several feet are prostrate on the ground...It promises to be a nice late pink of very hardy nature - it will require room. Outside of a few natural layers we have taken, there has been no propagation. At the present time, there are only two truly authentic plants of R. 'George Fraser' known to exist. One of them is growing in the original garden of Joseph Gable in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. The other was discovered in the Gable section of the rhododendron collection of the Tyler Arboretum at Lima, Pennsylvania. There, in 1988, Dr. Franklin West came across a huge plant of R. 'George Fraser' that Dr. Wister had bought from Gable in the 1950s. Dr. West sent cuttings from this plant to Mr. Lynn Watts of Bellevue, Washington, who rooted them. One of these plants was given to Van Dusen Gardens in Vancouver (for their Heritage Garden), and the other three are in Victoria, being grown on before being moved to a Fraser memorial garden.

R. 'Maxie' is ( R. maximum x ? possibly R. macrophyllum ). It is described as pink with heavy spotting, very late, from Fraser seed, named by Gable. No plants of R. 'Maxie' are known to exist.

R. 'Mrs. Jamie Fraser' ( R. arboreum x R. macrophyllum ) x R. arboreum ). The colour of this hybrid is a dark burgundy red with a flare of black spots in the throat. In a letter to Guy Nearing, Jan. 30, 1931, published in Hybrids and Hybridizers , Gable wrote, "Fraser grows a hybrid that is so dark it is almost black judging from the dried flowers he sent me. He claims it is the darkest shade he ever grew and calls it R. 'Mrs. Jamie Fraser'. It was named after his sister-in-law, the wife of his brother, Jim.

The only specimen known to exist was identified in 1987 in the garden of Mr. Ken Gibson of Tofino, British Columbia. Mr. Gibson had salvaged the specimen from an old planting of Fraser rhododendrons that was at Wickanninish Inn near Ucluelet, British Columbia.

Except for the few listed above, none of Fraser's crosses were named. He did, however, refer to many crosses he had made in the letters he wrote to Gable in the 1920s and 1930s.

Besides rhododendrons and azaleas, Fraser's other love was growing heathers. When his first catalogue was published in 1915, more than fifteen species and varieties of heather were listed. Among them was the Scottish heather, Calluna vulgaris . Although Calluna vulgaris is not indigenous to British Columbia, it is interesting that the botanists of Pacific Rim National Park have identified it in a large number of localities in the Ucluelet-Tofino area. There is a large area adjacent to the Tofino airport covered with this Scottish heather and it was in all probability planted by Fraser. During the Second World War, Fraser often visited the American Air Force squadron stationed at the Tofino air base and knew a number of the Kitty Hawk pilots well. He gave some of them small packages of Calluna vulgaris seeds which the pilots scattered on flights over the surrounding mountains.

Fraser was also particularly interested in the plants and wild flowers growing on the west coast of Vancouver Island. In 1921, he sent bulbs of five different native erythronium to the curator of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. One of these, Erythronium revolutum , he described as "Canada's most beautiful wild flower."

After Fraser's death in 1944, his property was sold to a developer who broke it up into building lots. Most of his once flourishing nursery was destroyed, but there are still reminders of this little known but important horticulturalist. Several rhododendrons which he planted beside St. Columbus Church in Tofino in 1924 are now as high as the church itself. Each spring they burst into glorious colour to remind the residents of the generous old Scotsman from the neighboring village of Ucluelet.

George Fraser's hybrids at Ucluelet.
George Fraser's hybrids at Ucluelet.
Photo supplied by Bill Dale

In Ucluelet, the rhododendrons which remain on the site of his nursery still bloom in the spring and the Japanese maples which he grew from seed obtained from a firm in Yokahama colour vividly in the fall.

George Fraser died on May 3, 1944, in his ninetieth year. He remained at his home in Ucluelet until the last few days of his life. When it came time for his friends to carry him to the speed boat on the shore which would take him to Port Alberni, he said to his friend Bud Thompson, "I don't know where I'm going to end up, but it doesn't matter - I have had my Heaven here on earth." He died in the hospital in Port Alberni two days later.

The citizens of Ucluelet are now in the process of organizing a George Fraser Memorial Garden in that village. On May 12, 1990, a marble headstone was placed on his grave by three Ucluelet service clubs during a memorial ceremony.

Bill Dale and the late Dr. Stuart Holland have spent the past five years researching the life and work of George Fraser. Dr. Holland was a founding member of the Victoria Rhododendron Society. Bill Dale, also a Victoria Rhododendron Society member, presented a paper on George Fraser at the 1989 ARS Convention in Victoria. The information gathered on Fraser by Dr. Holland, Bill Dale and Frances Gundry has been deposited in the British Columbia Provincial Archives in Victoria.