George Fraser, A Biography

by Bill Dale

It was a long time coming, but George Fraser, first foreman of Beacon Hill Park, has finally been recognized for his work. In our last issue, the laying of his commemorative stone was described in detail. However, George Fraser’s work did not begin and end at Beacon Hill Park. Read on and discover the life of a west coast plant pioneer.

In 1889, when John Blair, already recognized as a great landscape designer, won the competition to design and build Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, the first thing he did was to hire another Scot, George Fraser, to be his foreman. The result was this beautiful park, which has been a source of pride to the citizens of Victoria for the past 110 years.

George Fraser, always very modest, and Blair, were probably the two people most responsible for the great parks and gardens we have in British Columbia today. They were the first horticultural pioneers.

Fraser was born and trained in Scotland, and while still in his twenties, served as head gardener at several large estates in Scotland. Despite his position and reputation, he always wanted 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 found his ‘rhododendron heaven’ with a climate and soil suitable to grow his beloved rhododendrons and azaleas. He bought 256 acres of land there for $256 in 1894, and spent the next fifty years of his life doing just what he wanted to do. He cleared enough land for a nursery and was in business.

Although rhododendrons were always his great love, he was interested in developing many new things. He crossed many domestic varieties with the native species of the west coast in an effort to come up with plants that would combine the best features of both. He did this with cranberries, gooseberries, roses and honeysuckle, to mention only a few.

In 1897, he received a shipment of cranberries from Nova Scotia. In this shipment he noticed a weed, which he recognized as being a wild rhododendron from the East Coast – R. canadenses. This he planted separately and 15 years later when it bloomed, in 1912, he promptly crossed it with R. japonicum. This hybrid bloomed in 1919 and later that year a budded plant was sent to Professor C.S. Sargent at the Arnold Arboretum, Boston. 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, Mr. Watson named the hybrid plant, Rhododendron X Fraseri. Quite independently, Fraser’s hybrid was also named R. X. Fraseri at the Arnold Arboretum.

About this time, a young man, Joseph Gable of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, became interested in the growing of rhododendrons. The Arnold Arboretum suggested that he get in touch with a Mr. George Fraser of Ucluelet, BC. Fraser recommended Gable for membership in the Royal Horticultural Society (something that was required in those days).