The Fraser Heritage
In our September letter, Bill Dale wrote an account of ‘Fraser Days’ in Ucluelet, the first annual celebration of George Fraser’s pioneering of rhododendron culture in BC. Bill has now written a series of pieces describing Fraser’s hybrids, and we are pleased to present two of them here.
Beacon Hill Park’s ’Cynthia’
The plant of R.’Cynthia’ growing near to Fountain Lake in Beacon Hill Park is probably the first rhododendron planted in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, and possibly in British Columbia. Its story is linked to the careers of both John Blair and George Fraser.
Before coming to BC, John Blair had already made his mark as a landscape gardener in North America. Emigrating from Perthshire in Scotland in 1851, he first settled in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he worked as a gardener for 3 years. He then proceeded to Rockford, Illinois and thence to Chicago, becoming park superintendent. In the 1870s he moved to Colorado Springs where he built the gardens of General William Palmer’s castle. He next proceeded to California where he became acquainted with the famous hybridizer, Luther Burbank. There, he also encountered a member of the Dunsmuir family and was lured to BC, where he established a home in Sahtlam, near Duncan. In 1889, he won the contest to design and build Beacon Hill Park.
With this commission in hand, he promptly hired another Scot by the name of George Fraser to be his foreman. This was a wise move, and these two Scottish immigrants became friends until Blair’s death in 1906 at the age of 86.
Blair purchased 2000 trees and shrubs from the firm of Thomas Meehan & Sons in Germantown, Pennsylvania. The names of these trees and shrubs have been lost, but we do know that ’Cynthia’ is still thriving at Fountain Lake. Actually it looks like one large plant, but is 5 plants clustered together. Fittingly, it is not very far from the Fraser memorial stone which was placed in 1999 across the stream between Fountain Lake and Goodacre Lake. After 112 years these 5 plants of ’Cynthia’ are still thriving and put on a great show when in flower in May of each year. A fitting memorial to two great gardeners, John Blair and George Fraser.
There may be some doubt as to the parentage of R.’George Fraser’, but there is no questioning the origin of this plant. It came to Victoria via a circuitous route.
R.’George Fraser’ was a cross of the west coast native R. macrophyllum and 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. He planted the seed and when it bloomed he was quite taken with it. In the book, Hybrids and Hybridizers by Philip Livingston and Dr. Franklin West, Gable is quoted as saying, “But some half dozen years ago in a thicket of 10-12 foot maximums 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. One of these grew in Gable’s original garden in Stewartstown. The other was discovered in the Gable section of the rhododendron collection in the Tyler Arboretum as Lima, Pennsylvania. There Dr. West came across a huge plant of ’George Fraser’ that Dr. John Wister had bought from Gable in the 1950’s. Dr. West told me of the plant when he attended the ARS convention in Victoria in 1989. It was arranged that Dr. West would send cuttings of the plant to Lynn Watts of Bellevue, Washington. When Lynn managed to root these he sent on to the Van Dusen garden in Vancouver and another to myself in Victoria. Mine is now about 8 feet tall and has bloomed for me although sparsely. I have taken cuttings since and will be taking a plant of this to Ucluelet next year to be planted near the ‘Welcome to Ucluelet’ sign.
A picture of this plant can be seen on the front cover of the ARS Journal, Spring issue of 2000.