CANADIAN HERITAGE: Frank L. Skinner


Dr. F. L. Skinner c.1932
At 65 he married for the first time. He and his wife, Helen Gumming Skinner, began a family of five fine children.
Photo courtesy Manitoba Archives and RBG

If you are involved for any length of time in Canadian horticulture, the name 'Dropmore' will occur with surprising frequency. The reason this small Manitoba town is assured a lasting place in Canadian history is due to a remarkable plant breeder who made Dropmore his home.

Frank Leith Skinner was born in 1882 in Rosehearty, Scotland. He went to school in Aberdeen and emigrated from there in 1895 when an overabundance of herring, and the accompanying drop in fish prices, bankrupted his father, who ran a fish processing operation. It was between this bankruptcy and his move to Canada that he lived with his aunt. In his book Horticultural Horizons, he credits his time amongst her lilacs, mockoranges, fruits and roses as the inspiration for his later work. One of his fondest memories was inhaling the fragrance of her moss. cabbage and hybrid perpetual roses. When he later began his breeding work 1w says the memories of those roses prompted him to create roses hardy enough for Manitoba that had the fragrance of those distant blooms.

When Frank Skinner arrived in Canada the family settled in the then remote Castleavery District of Manitoba. This northern area was just being settled and making a living was an arduous task. The family established a homestead and gradually created a successful farming operation based on grain and cattle. It was during this period that he suffered a bout of pneumonia which caused one of his lungs to collapse. Under orders to avoid strenuous activity, he spent more time gardening and tending the cattle on horseback. These days gave him an opportunity to explore the native plants and prepared him for a lifetime of breeding work.

 The list of plant material that Mr. Skinner worked with is immense. Some of his better known introductions include 'Dropmore Scarlet' climbing honeysuckle, 'Rudolph' flowering crab, 'Dropmore' pear, 'Hiawatha' lilac, and 'Rosy O'Grady' clematis. He did not forget the fragrant roses of his youth, however, and Canadian rosarians owe a debt of gratitude for his efforts in the breeding of hardy roses.

Frank Skinner's first efforts at breeding involved roses. He worked with several of the native rose species, and imported species such as Rosa rugosa, Rosa spinnosissima, Rosa laxa, Rosa Alberti, Rosa koreana, Rosa persica and named varieties, whose pollen be used for form, fragrance and colour. One of his first attempts may eventually prove to be his most famous. He crossed Rosa rugosa with 'Mme Norbert Levavasseur' and produced what was later introduced by the Dutch firm of F.J. Grootendorst as 'F.J. Grootendorst'. According to Mr. Skinner, he sent two packets of this rose to separate locations, one of which never arrived. Fifteen years later he saw his rose appear as an introduction from Holland. Although never officially credited as the breeder of this famous hardy rose, history may eventually prove its Canadian origins.

Mr. Skinner's beginning work involved native species such as Rosa blanda and Rosa acicularis. His crosses between these species and various hybrid perpetuals were not very fruitful with the exception of 'Betty Bland', a Rosa Blanda hybrid with double pink flowers and bright red stems which grows 2m high or more. His Rosa rugosa hybrids were more successful, yielding such roses as 'Will Alderman', 'George Will' and 'Wasagaming', a double pink fragrant variety with hybrid perpetual form and fragrance. He also made good use of Rosa spinnosissima, the hardy Scotch Rose. This resulted in varieties such as 'Haidee', a Rosa laxa x Rosa spinnosissima hybrid with double pink blooms and 'Butterball', a large creamy yellow single. Another which Mr. Skinner called 'Beauty of Dropmore' should be sought by the collector. Its double white fragrant flowers he describes as "of hybrid tea quality".

Frank Skinner's later efforts yielded some of his better known roses. 'Mrs. John McNab' which has Rosa rugosa and Rosa beggeriana in its parentage, is a very vigorous double white with a hint of pink, and is still available in the nursery trade. 'John McNab' is a pink shrub which grows four feet or more in height and recurs throughout the summer. 'Suzanne', a very hardy shrub with recurrent double pink blooms is living a second life in the blood of such new shrub roses as 'Champlain'. Agriculture Canada has used selections bred by Canadian breeders such as Skinner and Simonet in its breeding work and several of the Explorer Series owe their hardiness to these pioneer hybrids.

Dr. Frank L. Skinner MBE., LLD, died in Dropmore Manitoba on 27 August 1967 ‑ Centennial Year. Unfortunately nearly all his introductions are rare at best, existing only in isolated gardens or in the hands of collectors. There are no doubt prairie gardens overflowing with boughs of roses long ago ordered from Skinner's Nursery catalogues that are now considered lost. Perhaps most of the owners of these plants have no idea or how rare their plants are, or how important they are to the horticultural heritage of this country. It is hoped that plant collectors may yet assemble a complete collection of the roses bred by this remarkable man, a plantsman who kept both his nose and his pollen brush amongst the roses so that we could grow roses in a land that taketh away as much as it gives.

Robert A. Osborne
Petitcodiac, N.B.