Dr. Frank L. Skinner
Manitoba 's Master Plant Breeder & Horticulturalist
by George Siamandas
Dr. Frank L. Skinner is the man who brought gardening to the harsh Canadian Prairies. Skinner was born on May 5, 1882. Skinner, the father of gardening in Manitoba, is responsible for many of the shelter belt trees, flowering fruit trees, and hardy roses developed on the prairies. Skinner was born in Rosehearty Scotland May 5, 1882. He loved flowers and gardening as a boy. His family emigrated to Manitoba in 1895 and settled in the Dropmore area 400 km north west of Winnipeg just north of Russell. This was the northern outpost of agriculture with only 90 frost free growing days per year and strong drying winds. The perfect lab for this work.
Skinner was entirely self taught. He was engaged in ranching and farming with his brother but much preferred tinkering with plants. Skinner corresponded with all the leading lights in the plant world. He began a lifelong friendship with the Domminion Horticulturalist after WW1. He corresponded with experts all over the world and became a leading authority himself. After WW1 he visited Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum where he obtained a twig onto which he grafted the first hardy pear that would survive on the prairie. He went on to develop lilies, lilacs, roses, apple, and other fruit trees. The scarlet trumpet honeysuckle, and Manitoba 's only decent weigela, were also developed by Skinner.
It was in the 1920s when the price of what bottomed out that Skinner turned to commercial plant propagation. He was able to cross strains to provide offspring that were suited to our climate and soil conditions.
He received many awards including honourary degrees from the Agricultural College, the University of Manitoba , the MBE in 1943, and the Order of the Buffalo Hunt in 1967. He became internationally known and is famous for the Dropmore Elm, fast growing poplar shelter belt trees, and early blooming lilacs. He introduced 248 species of which 144 were improved varieties of existing plants.
Skinner stayed busy with his plants an entire lifetime and waited till 1947 to get married. Age 65. At age 65 you could call him a late bloomer. But this late bloomer proved to be fertile in more ways than one. Well into his 70s he fathered five children and may have been the oldest father of a brood of baby boomers in Manitoba.
Skinner tried to develop system of plant patents and was often in conflict with nurseries. Yet he remained generous with his knowledge and did it for love not money. His work was not just for science. Skinner was driven to produce plants for a prairie gardeners's dreams given our climate and growing season.
He wrote Nature Notes for the Winnipeg Free press. Skinner died at age 85 in 1967. As of 1981 his children still ran the Dropmore Nursery.