Rhodos Rediscovered

Credit: Bill Dale

However, had he wandered into the village and chanced upon the property owned by George Fraser, he would likely have been as captivated with the garden as was one-time resident Marion Crossley, who later wrote: “Many ornamental trees: plums, cherries, almonds, several varieties of oak and birch as well as numerous less common deciduous ones grew in the garden.

There were also monkey puzzles, green and variegated hollies, a Japanese umbrella pine, a magnolia, and many varieties of evergreens, both the ones that were indigenous to the region and species from elsewhere. During the summer the garden was enriched by masses of annuals and biennials. Sweet peas climbed up the shed wall. There were great quantities of foxgloves, hollyhocks, brilliant patches of marigolds and zinnias, cosmos, geraniums, nasturtiums, lupins, delphiniums, ageratum, poppies and fragrant lilies. In shady corners were beds of tuberous begonias which added to the kaleidoscope of colours.”

But George Fraser’s main focus was not on the colourful beds so vividly recalled by Crossley but rather the thousands of rhododendrons he nurtured on the property. Hybridizing became his passion and he was one of the earliest rhododendron hybridizers in North America.

R. FraseriR. Fraseri

Fraser died in 1944 near the end of the Second World War, and in 1948 his property was subdivided into building lots. The memory of his contribution to the genus faded over the years until Bill Dale, along with the late Dr. Stuart Holland (former chief geologist of B.C.) and Frances Gundry, an archivist with the provincial archives, researched his legacy.

Bill, Stuart and Frances, all members of the Victoria Genealogy Association, first collaborated to research the history of John Blair, who designed and landscaped Beacon Hill Park in Victoria in the late 1880s. Blair hired a fellow Scot – George Fraser – as his foreman. Many of the shrubs and trees planted by Blair and Fraser can still be seen in the park – probably the most striking is a group of four Rhododendron ‘Cynthia’ near Fountain Lake. The 6-m (20-ft.) plants are covered each spring with a mass of red-pink blooms. (Fraser would later name one of his most beautiful hybrids for his friend Blair.)

R. 'Albert Close'R. ‘Albert Close’

Following their research on Blair, the trio decided to focus on Fraser. They walked the streets of Ucluelet to track down rhododendrons planted by the pioneer, and interviewed residents of Ucluelet who could still remember the old man who taught local children to play the fiddle and gave sprigs of white heather (for good luck) to visitors to his garden. They unearthed reports on his work in early gardening publications and found correspondence between Fraser and the noted hybridizer Joseph B. Gable of Stewartstown, PA, as well as with the curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Although Fraser’s work had largely been forgotten when they started their research, they found he was well-respected by his peers during his lifetime. Fraser wrote: “In 1925 I was made a corresponding member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, an honour reserved for those preeminent in horticulture.” Three years later he was elected first vice-president of the Pacific Coast Association of Nurserymen and in 1936 he was honoured as the first life member of the Vancouver Island Horticultural Association.

While Fraser was an enthusiastic hybridizer, relatively few plants were named and unfortunately all his botanical and horticultural notes were destroyed by a fire after his death. His most well-known hybrids include the following:

R. ‘Fraseri’ – Fraser crossed R. canadense with R. japonicum. The cross bloomed in 1919 and was named R. ‘Fraseri’ by William Watson, curator of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. R. ‘Fraseri’ is fairly widely grown in gardens on southern Vancouver Island, and in the Ucluelet area there are plants estimated to be over 50 years old.

R. ‘Albert Close’ – In 1914 Fraser began hybridizing R. californicum (now called R. macrophyllum) with R. maximum, R. catawbiense and R. ponticum. A cross between R. macrophyllum and R. maximum resulted in a hybrid described as “straggly” with bright rose-pink blooms “with the throat heavily spotted with chocolate red.” This hybrid was named by his friend Joseph Gable after the chief propagator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture plant introduction station at Glen Dale, Maryland.

R. George FraserR. ‘George Fraser’

R. ‘George Fraser’ – A hybrid of R. macrophyllum and R. maximum. Only two original plants of R. ‘George Fraser’ are known to exist. One of these is growing in the original garden of Joseph Gable in Stewartstown, PA. The other was discovered in the Gable section of the rhododendron collection in the Tyler Arboretum at Lima, PA. A cutting from this plant was given to VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, and there are two others in Beacon Hill Park.

R. ‘John Blair’ – In 1924 Fraser crossed R. arborescens and R. occidentale (with R. occidentale the seed parent) to create this fragrant rhododendron, which he named after his friend John Blair. In the 1964-5 catalogue of Eddie’s Nursery in Vancouver the John Blair hybrid is described as “similar in size and shape to Mollis azalea, flowers pure white and produced in late spring, to 7 feet.” In 1990 Bill was given a R. ‘John Blair’ and he registered it with the American Rhododendron Society. This plant is now also flourishing in Beacon Hill Park. Currently R. ‘John Blair’ is not known to be available anywhere in the trade; however, there may be some specimens growing in old gardens in Vancouver. One example grows on a subdivision that was part of Fraser’s original property and there are two other known plants, also in Ucluelet.

R. ‘Mrs. Jamie Fraser’ is a cross between (R. arboreum x R. macrophyllum) and R. arboreum. In a 1930 letter Gable writes: “Fraser grows a hybrid that is so dark it is about black judging from the dried flowers he sent me. He claims it is the darkest shade he ever grew and calls it Mrs. Jamie Fraser.” The hybrid was named after his sister-in-law (who later inherited his Ucluelet property). In 1935, Gable mentions it again in a letter as being “three quarters R. arboreum and one quarter R. californicum.” The only specimen known to exist was identified in 1987 in a garden in Tofino. The owner of the garden salvaged the shrub from an old planting of Fraser rhododendrons at Wickanninish Inn.

Eighteen other hybrids are recorded in letters Fraser wrote to Gable, but none of these are known to still exist.

R. Mrs Jamie Fraser R. ‘Mrs Jamie Fraser’

Curiously, Bill says he was not particularly interested in gardening when he began researching Fraser. However, over the years he collected eight of the Fraser hybrids that flourished on his 3⁄4-acre Sidney property. When he sold the property recently, he donated the Fraser hybrids to Beacon Hill Park, where they are a living tribute to Bill and his passion for George Fraser’s rhododendrons.

Bill’s personal reward for focusing attention on Fraser comes each May when the Ucluelet-Tofino Highway into Ucluelet is ablaze with the purples and pinks of 200 rhododendrons, donated by the five ARS chapters on Vancouver Island and planted by George Fraser Committee members and community volunteers. This roadway of bloom reminds residents and visitors of the contribution made by the 50-year Ucluelet resident, and Bill feels that the pioneer plantsman is finally receiving due recognition for his early work in hybridizing the rhododendron.

The information in this article was researched by Bill Dale, Dr. Stuart Holland and Frances Gundry. Subsequently, Bill Dale became an advocate for the legacy of George Fraser and has strived to ensure that the early hybridizer’s work is recognized and honoured.

Related links:
Species rhododendrons
Growing rhododendrons in a northern garden
How to plant a rhododendron video

Caring for rhodos:
Best rhododendron mulch mix
Peaky pink rhodo