Self-taught plant genius — plaque commemorates his contributions

A Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque has been recently unveiled to commemorate the national historic significance of Frank Leith Skinner of Dropmore, Manitoba, one of Canada’s most respected and innovative horticulturalists and plant propagators.

“Frank Skinner was truly a remarkable man,” said Stephane Dion, the federal Environment Minister and Minister Responsible for Parks Canada. “A self-taught horticulturalist and plant breeder, his passion for developing hardy plant varieties for use by northern prairie gardeners has resulted in a priceless legacy that lives on in his tree varieties that are still found in Prairie windbreaks, and in his lilacs, clematis, roses, and honeysuckles that continue to beautify Canadian gardens.”

Skinner devoted most of his life to the pursuit of horticulture, first as a hobby and then as a commercial enterprise. His research, collection of hardy plants from around the world and his work in crossbreeding made over 300 plant varieties available to Canadian gardeners. These introduced and hybrid plants met demanding standards for hardiness, disease resistance and attractiveness. 

Created in 1919, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada advises the Minister of the Environment about the national historic significance of places, persons and events that have marked Canada’s history. The placement of a commemorative plaque represents an official recognition of their historic value. 

Frank Skinner made it his life’s mission to push Canada’s horticultural border ever northwards. 

Although Skinner was introducing hardy plant material by 1911, and was hybridizing plants by the First World War, his serious plant breeding began in 1918. By 1925, he opened, on his Dropmore homestead, the Manitoba Hardy Plant Nursery (renamed Skinner's Nursery Ltd. in 1949), which became one of the most productive in the Canadian West. 

The property is still owned by the Skinner family and many of the original structures, such as the original Skinner residence, barn and labourer’s cottage still stand. As well, some of the original plant material that Skinner used in his experiments still thrives.  

At the site, visitors can explore self-guided interpretive trails as well as the Skinner Introductions Garden, which was established by the Frank Skinner Arboretum Corporation, a non-profit organization formed in 1992 to preserve the plantings of the original nursery and the heritage of the site. The trail and garden feature the plants developed by Skinner for Western Canadian gardeners. 

Skinner’s story

Skinner was born in Rosehearty, Scotland on May 5, 1882 and moved to Aberdeen in 1885. There, his interest in gardening revealed itself at a very early age, and he developed a love of certain flowers and trees which later inspired him to attempt to introduce these to Western Canada.

The Skinner family emigrated to Manitoba in 1895, settling in the Dropmore-Castleavery district, 400 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg near the Saskatchewan border. The area was, in Skinner’s words, “one of the northern outposts of farming settlement.” 

It was to prove an ideal testing ground for developing hardy strains of plants, as the growing season was short and conditions severe. At latitude 51 degrees, elevation 550 metres, the soil was a rich clay loam, but frost-free days numbered on the average only 90 per year. Strong, dry winds prevailed year-round, with low precipitation, and extremes of temperature. The central concern of settlers was survival, and they found little time to rear ornamental plants.

Soon after his arrival in Dropmore, Skinner planted a home garden and by 1900 his flowers were well known among the neighbours. During the year, he and his brother, William, took up neighbouring homesteads and pooled their resources. By 1910 Frank was solely responsible for the cattle, while his brother cultivated the land.

During his first year farming, however, Frank contracted pneumonia and lost the lower lobe of his right lung. He was advised to avoid strenuous activity, so he focused his attention on gardening. The hours he spent on horseback tending his cattle proved invaluable to this hobby, for he used the time to study the natural vegetation of the Dropmore area.

Skinner’s knowledge of horticulture and plant breeding was acquired entirely on his own initiative. Undaunted by the remoteness of his home and the lack of local reading material on the subject, he began his own collection of books and corresponded regularly with horticulturalists throughout the world. He joined the Manitoba Horticultural Society in 1909, and was singled out by its president, Dr. Speechly, to present a paper the following year. In 1911 he began his first formal collection of plant material.

As knowledge of Skinner’s work grew, he was able to establish national and international contacts which eventually included commercial and private growers in North America, Great Britain, Europe, Russia, Manchuria, India and elsewhere. 

During the First World War, Skinner was excused from military service because of his disability, but the demands of the farm (now expanded to 280 hectares of grain and 400 head of cattle) prevented him from pursuing his horticultural interests. Still, he managed to continue plant breeding and did extensive reading on the plant life of certain arid regions of Asia which, because of the similarity of their latitude and climate to those of Manitoba, might provide plants suitable to the prairies of Canada.

On a visit to Ottawa in 1918, Skinner met T.W. Macoun, the Dominion horticulturalist, who would become a lifelong friend. From Macoun, Skinner learned much about the use of microscopes and other techniques in plant breeding. 

The same year he travelled to the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University. This marked the beginning of his international collection of plants and of a continuing exchange of plant material which was essential to his work. It was from a twig from the arboretum that Skinner was able to grow the first hardy pear on the prairies.

Skinner remained a rancher and farmer until 1924-25, when beef and wheat prices slumped. Encouraged by M.B. Davis (later Dominion horticulturalist) and professor William Alderman of the horticulture department of the University of Minnesota, Skinner decided to commercialize his plant propagating hobby. 

Although his Dropmore farm was far from the rail centre of the province, where his plants and material would arrive, Skinner realized that the time, effort and money he had already invested made the costs of relocation outweigh the benefits. At Dropmore, he could continue to use the grain-growing portion of his land to support himself, while the environment was ideal for developing plants that would survive throughout the prairies. 

The financial rewards for his work were slight, but Skinner’s love for it inspired him to continue, and he developed the Hardy Plant Nursery to help support his plant breeding. As recognition of his work grew, business expanded. 

In 1947 Skinner married Helen Cumming, and they had five children.

It was Skinner’s experiments in hybridization, the process of crossing strains of plants to produce offspring more suited to a different climate and soil, that gained him fame. Individually, he accomplished more than any other horticulturalist in Western Canada by introducing 248 species of plants to the region, 144 of which were new improved varieties.

Of particular importance were Skinner’s accomplishments with trees, which have always been needed in Manitoba as wind breaks and to provide shade in the hot summer months. Early attempts to bring varieties from Ontario had been unsuccessful, and had led to the widespread impression that the prairies would not sustain trees. 

In the first decade of the 20th century, the federal government tried to promote tree planting by providing free seeds, cuttings and seedlings, and by providing inspectors to advise people on their care. The success of this project was limited, for the environment of most areas proved too severe. 

Not satisfied with the plant material used in these attempts, Skinner began his lifelong experimentation with trees in 1901. His objective was to produce strains that were rapid-growing, as well as drought and disease-resistant.

Among Skinner’s most important results were the fast-growing hybrid varieties of poplars which, unlike many others, could be rooted easily from hard wood cuttings. These were most useful for shelter belts on the prairie and, Skinner anticipated they could be used in the development of Manitoba’s pulp and paper industry.

The elm Ulmus primila L., named the “Dropmore Elm” in 1953 by the American Association for the Advancement of Horticultural Science, was introduced by Skinner from Manchuria. It proved to be hardy, withstanding cold and drought as well as displaying rapid early growth. It is now widely grown in the Great Plains area and has become the standard shelter belt tree in Central Canada.

Ornamental fruit trees were also a special concern of Skinner. As well as the hardy pear which he introduced from the Arnold Arboretum, he was able to develop hardier strains of cherry, plum and apple trees.

For the early-blooming, heavily perfumed lilacs, which are such a welcome relief from the long prairie winter, much credit must be given to Skinner. Before there were only the French variety, introduced in the late 1890s. 

These lilacs were not consistently hardy and were prone to suckering (sending out spindly new plants alongside the parent, these new shoots being incapable of full-size growth while at the same time robbing the parent of valuable nutrients). Skinner crossed them with Korean seedlings from the Arnold Arboretum, and by 1922 succeeded in bringing a new form to seed. Of the 26 new varieties eventually introduced, one was named for Grace Mackenzie at the request of her son, Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

Roses, a childhood favourite of Skinner, posed an interesting challenge. The strains from Scotland were too tender to survive the harsh Manitoba winters. Skinner crossed these with the tough, but much less elegant, wild species native to Manitoba. He also imported and reproduced varieties from Manchuria and the Soviet Union (now Russia) which, after selective breeding, were able to withstand the climate.

Skinner’s best known work was with lilies, which were first grown in Canada at the beginning of the century. In 1926, his Lily Dropmore concolor captured the Royal Horticultural Society’s (Great Britain) award of merit. 

The next year, Skinner took pollen from a Korean lily and dusted the stigma of a Chinese lily. The result was the Lilium Maxwill, which inherited the sturdy stem of the Korean lily and the delicate beauty of the Chinese. For this, Skinner received the society’s highest award, the Cory Cup, in 1933. This honour had never before gone to an entry outside the United Kingdom. 

His achievements with lilies also brought Skinner the position of director and later, vice president, of the North American Lily Society, and in 1944, the silver medal of the Boston Lily Show.

Much of Skinner’s work was of interest to the general public as well as to plant specialists. They could read about him, and particularly about his work with ornamental plants, in numerous magazine and newspaper articles. These appeared not only in Canada, but in the United States and Europe. 

The most important written work was his autobiography, Horticultural Horizons: Plant Breeding and Introduction at Dropmore, Manitoba. The federal Department of Agriculture published it in 1967. Fifty Years of Gardening, one of several articles by Skinner describing his work appeared in the bulletin of the Arnold Arboretum in 1945. He was also well known by readers of the Winnipeg Free Press for his contribution to Nature Notes.

Skinner’s work was not without its share of problems. The process of plant breeding was expensive and often took many years to yield results. Because new varieties could not be patented, other growers could undersell the originator by assigning prices which did not reflect the costs of research and development. Often this meant that research was held back while breeders like Skinner spent their time tending to the commercial nurseries which supported them and financed their research. 

As the owner of a small nursery, and a horticulturalist most interested in plant breeding, Skinner supported the idea of the plant patent. This he believed, would promote co-operation between nurserymen and breeders, and remove the need for growers to cloak their discoveries in secrecy.

Such a position brought Skinner into conflict with the large-scale nurseries, as did his support for the principle of labelling nursery stock from its place of origin. The location where plants were reared was an important indicator of their geographical hardiness. Without origin labelling. growers buying stock could never be certain it would survive in Manitoba.

Despite Skinner’s disadvantage in competing with the large-scale nurseries which, he felt, were active in preventing the success of his work on several occasions, he was always generous in sharing his knowledge of plants. He made several trips through the United States and Canada and much of the material thus gathered he exchanged with such institutions as the Kew Gardens in England and the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh.

Skinner was the recipient of many well-deserved awards and honours. His talent was recognized quite early in his career by the Manitoba Agricultural College, which awarded him an honorary diploma in 1932. The same year he received the Stevenson gold medal for achievement in horticulture. In 1943 he received an MBE (Member of the British Empire) and in 1947, an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Manitoba. He was honoured with many life memberships in organizations such as the Plant Propagator’s Society of America and the Western Canadian Society for Horticulture. 

The government of Manitoba recognized his contributions by granting Skinner the Order of the Buffalo Hunt, the highest honour a citizen may receive. The award was presented in 1967 by Premier Duff roblin. 

Skinner’s portrait now hangs in the Agricultural Hall of Fame in Toronto, to which he was elected after his death. Gardeners and horticulturalists have paid tribute to Dr. Skinner by donating over $5,000 to a memorial fund. The interest from this fund is used to purchase books for a permanent collection on horticulture, which is housed in the Agricultural Library of the University of Manitoba.

Dr. F.L. Skinner died in 1967 at the age of 85, having made immeasurable contributions to horticulture. He has been called by some the “Burbank of the Prairies” since, like Luther Burbank who performed his plant wizardry in California, he was entirely self-taught and evidently gifted. 

Skinner envisioned a prairie rich in vegetation and his work with trees, shrubs and flowers enabled Manitobans to turn this dream into reality.

— information on Dr. Skinner’s life and career provided by the Manitoba Historical Resources Branch.