We are pleased to present two more pieces by Bill Dale of George Fraser’s contribution to the development of rhododendrons and other plants in our BC history.
George Fraser moved to Ucluelet from Victoria in 1894. He started the daunting task of building a nursery out of the virgin forest. He purchased 236 acres for $236 and was in business.
He eventually became known world wide because of his rhododendrons but he was also interested in other plants. He wanted to develop new strains of plants by crossing the native west coast plants with domestic types in the hope of producing a plant which would be superior fruit-wise and bloom-wise, but also would be more resistant to disease.
He propagated many types of plants such as gooseberries, where he crossed the native black gooseberry with the commonly known ‘red jacket’. This cross resulted in berries as large as the English gooseberry but with none of the astringency of the domestic type.
The beautiful native honeysuckle, which is not fragrant, was crossed with the fragrant European species to produce a rampant grower that produces fragrant blooms in spring and again in autumn, and whose bright coral berries remain ornamental into the winter.
These are but two examples of the crosses he made, but his most famous came about by chance.
In 1897 in a shipment of plants sent to him from Nova Scotia, Fraser noticed a weed amongst them as being R. Canadense (The rhodora of Eastern Canada and the United States). This he planted separately and 15 years later when it bloomed in 1912, he promptly crossed it with R. japonicum. This resulting cross bloomed in 1919, and later that year a budded plant was sent to Professor C.S. Sargent at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University at Boston, Massachusetts. When Sargent failed to acknowledge receipt of the plant, Fraser sent another budded plant to Mr. William Watson, curator of the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, England. In 1920 Mr. Watson named the hybrid plant ‘Rhododendron Fraseri’.
Quite independently Fraser’s hybrid was also named R. Fraseri at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard. R. Fraseri is now widely grown in North America and in Europe. Incidentally, the Arnold Arboretum asked me if I knew where they could get another plant of R. Fraseri to replace their plant which had since died. In 2000 I was able to send them one via a lady who was attending the ARS Convention at Duncan BC, so it is again growing in Boston where it was first named.
George Fraser was very generous with both his plants and his knowledge. Sometime, probably in the 1930’s, he sent a plant that he had hybridized to the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco. Jock Bryden, the well known secretary of the American Rhododendron Society was curator of the arboretum in later years. About 1970, a nurseryman from near Chilliwack, Jim English, visited the arboretum while on a buying trip to California. He was a tomato and evergreen grower. Jock gave him Fraser’s plant to return it to BC where he thought it should be.
The plant was one that Fraser had hybridized using pollen sent to him from Pennsylvania by his friend Joseph Gable. The pollen was from the wild rhododendrons, R. Minus, which grow in the Appalachian Mountains in Gable’s home state of Pennsylvania. It is not known what he crossed it with, but it probably was one of the native rhododendrons off North America’s west coast.
Jim English brought the plant home and gave it to Fred Collins of Maple Ridge. Fred was, and still is, an enthusiastic grower and at the time was president of the Vancouver Rhododendron Society. Fred moved from Maple Ridge to Duncan and took this plant among others with him. He later took it to his new home on McAlpine Street and still later to Red Baron Street in Cobble Hill. Fred was one of the founding members of the Victoria Rhododendron Society, and later a founding member of the Cowichan Valley Rhododendron Society.
When I visited Fred a few years ago on Red Baron, Fred showed me the plant and it had developed several layers. Fred gave me a couple of these layers which are now growing with my other Fraser hybrids in my garden near Sidney.
This fall I will be taking one of these packets to Ucluelet where it will be planted and hopefully be blooming for Fraser Days in May next year. It will have finally come home.