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Frank Leith Skinner: Quite a Horticulturist!

For the week of Monday May 3, 2004

on May 5, 1882, Frank Leith Skinner was born in Rosehearty, Scotland. His exceptional powers of observation, his resourcefulness and ability to learn on his own made him one of Canada’s greatest horticulturists.

Frank Skinner with linden branch (1966)
© Courtesy of the Skinner family

At the age of 13, Frank Skinner and his family emigrated to Canada and settled near Dropmore, Manitoba. He and his brother ran the large family farm as early as 1900. During the first winter, Frank came down with pneumonia and could no longer participate in most community social activities. Nevertheless, he used his free time to learn about gardening and to study the surrounding vegetation. Skinner was disappointed to see that most of the plants growing in his native Scotland could not survive under the harsh conditions of his new environment, but the local vegetation’s resilience fascinated him.

In the fall of 1911, after breaking his collarbone while working on the farm, Skinner decided to head to Vancouver Island to rest, and again devoted himself to horticulture. He stopped along the way in the Rockies to gather a few wild plants for analysis. When he returned home, he joined the Manitoba Horticultural Association and became an influential member. He read a great deal on the subject and experimented with crossbreeding. He also travelled throughout North America and Europe to attend horticulture meetings and visit important institutions such as experimental farms.

Dropmore scarlet trumpet honeysuckle, a plant that was developped by Frank Skinner that is now one of the largest selling plants around the Northern hemisphere. 
© Courtesy of the Skinner family

He was, however, having increasing difficulty pursuing his research without any government assistance. After some encouragement from scientists who believed in his abilities, Skinner opened the Manitoba Hardy Plant Nursery in 1925, turning his hobby into a business enterprise. Although his nursery was never financially successful, it enabled him to continue his work, bringing him great personal satisfaction until his death at the age of 85.

During more than fifty years of work, this self-taught man won the respect of all his fellow horticulturists and successfully introduced more than 330 varieties of trees, shrubs, vines and flowers that could survive the cold and dry conditions of Western Canada. Because of his important contribution to the advancement of horticultural research in Canada, Frank Leith Skinner was designated a person of national historic significance in 1997.

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