JARS v54n2 - George Fraser Honored at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, BC

George Fraser Honored at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, BC
Bill Dale
Sidney, British Columbia

It has been a long time coming, but George Fraser has finally been recognized for his work in the building of the beautiful Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, British Columbia. On Saturday, Sept. 25, 1999, a crowd, including many rhododendron enthusiasts, gathered for the unveiling of a commemorative stone to gratefully acknowledge Fraser's contributions as first foreman under landscape architect John Blair, who designed the park.

On Friday night, strong winds had littered the park with broken limbs and split trees, but on Saturday the calm, sun-filled setting by Fountain Lake belied the previous night's tempest, and the ceremony, arranged by Beacon Hill Park's planning manager, Joe Daly, was held in fine weather. Participating in the ceremony were members of the Victoria Scottish Society and Gaelic Choir, Victoria Mayor Bob Cross, Irene Doirin, George Fraser's niece, and Mrs. Marion Crossly, who as a young girl learned to play the violin from Fraser. When the tartan over the stone was removed, Louise Milman, Blair's great-great-granddaughter, placed a sprig of heather by the stone. Contributors to the stone were Scottish groups in Victoria and George Christie's Nursery in Fochabers, Scotland, where a plaque honouring Fraser stands today.

George Fraser commemorative stone in Beacon Hill 
Park, Victoria, BC
A commemorative stone in honor of George Fraser was placed
in Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, British Columbia.
Photo by Bill Dale

Bill Dale spoke to the gathering about the man who had planted large stands of Rhododendron 'Cynthia' in 1889 and many fine specimen trees in the park. In 1889, when John Blair was already recognized as a great landscape designer, he won the competition to design and build Beacon Hill Park. The first thing he did was to hire another Scot, George Fraser, to be his foreman. Blair ordered over 2,000 trees, and Fraser saw to it they were properly planted. George Fraser, always modest, and John Blair were probably the two people most responsible for the great parks and gardens in British Columbia and were, indeed, horticultural pioneers.

Fraser had been borne and trained in Scotland and while still in his twenties had been head gardener at several large estates in Scotland. Despite his position and reputation, he always wanted to own his own land. As this was not possible in his native Scotland, he struck out for Canada with his dream of owning and operating his own nursery.

After working in Winnipeg and Victoria, he settled in the remote village of Ucluelet on the isolated west coast of Vancouver Island. He formed his "rhododendron heaven" with a climate and soil suitable to grow his beloved rhododendrons and azaleas. He bought 256 acres of land for $256 in 1894 and cleared enough land for a nursery. He spent the next fifty years doing just what he wanted to do.

Although rhododendrons were always his great love, he had a great interest in developing new plants in other genera. He crossed domestic varieties with the native species of cranberry, gooseberry, rose, and honeysuckle. In 1897, he received a shipment of cranberries from Nova Scotia in which he noticed a weed he recognized as a wild rhododendron from the East Coast - Rhododendron canadense . Fifteen years later when it bloomed, in 1912, he promptly crossed it with R. japonicum . The cross bloomed in 1919, and later that year a budded plant was sent to Professor C. S. Sargent at the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts. When Sargent failed to acknowledge receipt of the plant, Fraser sent another budded plant to William Watson, curator at the Royal Botanic Garden Kew. In 1920, Watson named the hybrid 'Fraseri'. Quite independently, Fraser's hybrid was given the same name at the Arnold Arboretum.

About this time, a young man, Joseph Gable of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, become interested in growing rhododendrons. The Arnold Arboretum suggested that he get in touch with a Mr. George Fraser of Ucluelet, B.C. In time, Fraser recommended Gable for membership in the Royal Horticultural Society (something that was required in those days). Fraser also introduced Gable by mail to Mr. E. J. P. Magor of Cornwall. The rest is history as Gable went on to become the dean of all American rhododendron growers. Gable and Fraser became fast friends and corresponded regularly until Fraser's death in 1944. Fraser was buried in the Ucluelet cemetery, and today a plaque donated by members of the local ARS chapters honors him.

Several years later, Gable wrote: "Mr. Fraser helped me very much in my earlier years, and I owe much of what I have been able to accomplish to him. My first hybrids of R. fortunei , R. discolor and perhaps too of R. decorum were obtained through the Magor-Fraser channel and my work has been basically built upon these crosses. So both I and those who grow the varieties of rhododendrons I have concocted and disseminated owe a debt we cannot figure out in dollars and cents to the kindly, paternal advice and generosity of my old friend George Fraser."

In 1991, Fraser was posthumously awarded the rarely given Pioneer Achievement Award by the American Rhododendron Society, and a bronze plaque was placed at both Ucluelet and Scotland in his honour. However, it was not until Sept. 25, 1999, that the city of Victoria honoured this pioneer who had been responsible for planting many of the trees and shrubs in Beacon Hill Park over a hundred years ago.

Cover Photo: Rhododendron 'George Fraser'
Although George Fraser lived in the remote village Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island and died in 1944, the year before the American Rhododendron Society was officially formed, he carried on a correspondence with the leading rhododendron growers of the day, both in North American and Britain. The current hybridizers have the advantage of very complex crosses, but today some of Fraser's crosses are still considered good plants.

R. 'George Fraser'
R. 'George Fraser'
Photo by Bill Dale

One of his hybrids, 'George Fraser', is a cross of the West Coast native Rhododendron macrophyllum with the East Coast native R. maximum . Fraser received the pollen of R. maximum from his good friend Joseph Gable of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. When the resulting hybrid bloomed he collected seed and sent it to Gable. Gable planted the seed in a row and when it bloomed he was quite taken with it. In the book Hybrids and Hybridizers by Philip Livingston and Franklin West, Gable is quoted as saying, "But some half dozen years ago in a thicket of 10-12 foot maximum , I noticed a fine pink truss of flowers...Since the flower was so fine I immediately cut and dug and tore all plants and branches of maximum away that were touching or close to this plant, since when it has developed amazingly." This hybrid was initially designated "maximum #5" but later was named 'George Fraser' by Gable.

At the time there were two truly authentic plants of 'George Fraser' known to exist. One of these is growing in Gable's original garden in Stewartstown. The other was discovered in the Gable section of the rhododendron collection in the Tyler Arboretum at Lima, Pennsylvania. There Dr. Franklin West came across a huge plant of 'George Fraser' that Dr. John Wister had bought from Gable in the 1950s. Dr. West told Bill Dale of the plant when he attended the Annual ARS Convention in Victoria in 1989. It was arranged that Dr. West would send Bill Dale and Lynn Watts of Bellevue, Washington, cuttings. Lynn Watts rooted the cuttings, one of which was given to the VanDusen Gardens in Vancouver for their heritage garden. The other was brought to Bill Dale, where it has been growing in his garden since that time. Although 'George Fraser' had the reputation of being a shy bloomer, Dale's plant produced five large flower buds in spring 1999. It bloomed beautifully, and Dale has since taken cuttings so it can be grown in other gardens, perhaps in the George Fraser Garden in Ucluelet as a tribute to Fraser and his good friend and fellow rhododendron pioneer Joseph Gable.

The hybrid 'George Fraser' has touched the lives of several prominent rhododendron growers who have received awards from the ARS. Both Fraser and Gable received the Pioneer Achievement Award, and Gable was given the ARS Gold Medal in 1953; Dr. John Wister was given the ARS Gold Medal in 1961, and Lynn Watts the Silver Medal in 1997. Bill Dale was honored with the Bronze Medal in 1989, and Franklin West was honored with the Bronze Medal.