JARS v50n3 - Rhododendron 'John Blair'

Rhododendron 'John Blair'
Bill Dale
Sidney, British Columbia

I consider myself very fortunate to have two deciduous azaleas growing side by side in my garden, each bearing the name of a Scot who left his mark on the early development of horticulture in North America. Of the two, Rhododendron 'Fraseri' is the better known (see article in the Summer 1990 issue of the Journal). The second is R. 'John Blair', which I registered in 1991. It is a rhododendron hybridized and grown at Ucluelet, British Columbia.

R. 'John Blair'
Rhododendron 'John Blair'
Photo by Bill Dale

In 1922 or 1923, George Fraser obtained pollen of the Eastern azalea R. arborescens from his friend Joseph Gable; this he crossed with R. occidentale . Fraser grew several of the seedlings of this cross, referring to the grex as "John Blair", and sent some of these seedlings to Gable. In the book Hybrids and Hybridizers , Gable states, "Seedlings (F2) of this hybrid by George Fraser of Ucluelet, B.C., first flowered in 1934. At first we thought we had captured much of the character and beauty of its Western parent in a plant sufficiently hardy to endure, but it suffered too much from winter cold and now is but a memory."

Fraser gave other seedlings of this grex to other people including three to Mary Baird of Ucluelet. In 1990, Mary gave me one of her plants. It is growing well in my garden, but I have not been able to find anyone who can propagate it successfully. Not only does it have a beautiful and very fragrant flower, but it bears the name of a little known pioneer horticulturist.

John Blair was born and trained in Perthshire, Scotland, where he took his first lessons in garden and park design from the natural beauty of the land of which Walter Scott wrote so eloquently in his "Lady of the Lake." In 1851 at age 31, he emigrated to North America, first to St. Catherines, Ontario, and three years later, in 1854, to Rockford, Illinois. This was seven years before the start of the American Civil War, and Illinois was still considered the Western frontier.

Blair's reputation as a landscape designer grew rapidly, and in 1865 he moved to the Chicago area where he laid out several of that city's new parks, utilizing the natural environment rather than copying the more formal design of sweeping lawns and trimmed hedges popular in Europe at that time. By 1871, when he left Chicago, he was superintendent of that city's public parks, but very few records of his work there are available, as Mrs. O'Reilly's cow kicked over a lantern and started the great Chicago fire of 1871.

Blair went west that year and settled in Colorado Springs, which was just starting to be developed. He was employed to lay out sections of the new city and several of its parks, especially in the area of the Garden of the Gods and Manitou Springs. These areas were ideal for using his concept of including the natural environment in his designs.

Of a roving nature, he made one final move to Vancouver Island, where he built a home in the virgin forest, five miles west of the present city of Duncan, B.C. In 1888, he entered a competition for the design of a large park in Victoria, B.C. He won handily and was given the job of building that city's present beautiful Beacon Hill Park. The first thing that he did was hire the aforementioned George Fraser as his foreman. They became good friends, and Fraser, many years after Blair's death in 1906, often spoke and wrote of his admiration for John Blair and his outstanding ability as a landscape designer. Fraser produced many hybrid rhododendrons and azaleas, and his favorite was the one he not surprisingly called 'John Blair'.

Both Gable and Fraser, the first and fourth recipients of the ARS Pioneer Achievement Award, were involved in the development of the plant named after John Blair, one of American's great pioneer landscape designers. I hope that I might be able to have 'John Blair' propagated successfully so that others may enjoy it as much as I do.

Bill Dale, a member of the Cowichan Valley Chapter, has contributed numerous articles to the Journal, among them "Fraser-Gable Letters"(Vol. 43, No. 1), "George Fraser" (Vol. 44, No. 3), and "The Abkhazi Garden" (Vol. 42, No. 4).