by Edwinna von Baeyer
Talk given for Heritage Ottawa on September 22, 2010
Today, when home gardeners browse garden centres, searching for annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees to beautify their grounds, they usually take the wide selection of ornamentals for granted. However, having this choice is no accident. It is a culmination of a concerted campaign to beautify and Canadianize our gardens by the Central Experimental Farm, beginning in the late 1800s.
To illustrate the Farm’s significant influence on the progress of furnishing our gardens, I’m going to focus on two Ottawa-based, pre-Second World War Experimental Farm horticulturists and plant breeders. They are W.T. Macoun and Isabella Preston, whom I’ve researched and published on and whom I hope you will enjoy hearing about tonight.
W.T. Macoun pretty much built the Farm’s Horticulture Division from scratch. He also bred winter-hardy apples, and was the major catalyst and support of the Farm’s breeding programs. Isabella Preston, called the “dean of Canadian hybridists” solidified and greatly advanced the Farm’s breeding program and influenced hundreds of hybridists around the world. I’ve enjoyed researching and publishing on their lives and work and hope you too will enjoy hearing about them.
But first, let’s quickly review. The Experimental Farm was established in 1886 as the central research station of the newly formed Experimental Farms System of the federal Department of Agriculture. This bold program had a wide-ranging, nation-building mandate. The Farm undertook agricultural research, and also promoted scientific, efficient farming practices across Canada, especially on the prairies, where the climate was presenting challenges. Not only were new techniques needed, but, so too were hardier, regional-specific plant materials of all kinds – from cash crops, such as wheat and corn, to hardier fruits, vegetables, ornamentals, shrubs and trees. The Farm’s mandate reflected the beliefs of William Saunders, the first director of the Experimental Farms System. He firmly believed in the value of the new farming movement that was based on scientific research, agricultural improvement, and so-called “book” farming. Under Saunders, the efforts of the Experimental Farms System focussed on uniting scientific experimentation with practical application.
Saunders also believed farm beautification was a major element in the success of the “new farming” movement. Well-laid out farmhouse landscaping would reflect a farmer’s efficient operations. A pleasing home farmstead would help keep farmers and their families on the land – a problem that was growing more acute as the 20th century approached and as more and more farmers left the land. Rural depopulation was said to be jeopardizing the nation’s economy and the foundation of Canada’s social, moral and religious values. Much was at stake in advancing agriculture and horticulture (the so-called “handmaiden of agriculture) in the late 19th, early 20th century. What was at stake? Settling the West, making the country fruitful and prosperous, building the nation.
Rural life was praised in the media and in lectures and sermons as a natural setting where people could best attain the ideals of morality, godliness and purity. Fresh, untainted air, beautiful surroundings, healthful exercise, innocent pastimes and a sense of community were contrasted with the polluted air, ugly streetscape, anonymity, vices and the fast pace of city life. Running almost parallel to this idea, was the urge to recreate rural, natural environments in cities and towns in the guise of parks and home gardens. However, before a rural paradise or urban breathing spaces could be realized, farmers and city dwellers had to be given the raw materials and information to create these rural Edens.
Horticultural reform was part and parcel of a larger urge to reform society.
By the 1890s, Canadians increasingly recognized that society had many ills and sought to remedy them. Many looked around and saw things that needed to be changed and people who needed help. From the late 1800s until the late 1920s, Canadian society was characterized by a reforming zeal that, especially before the First World War, was buoyed up by a spirit of optimism. This would be Canada’s century!
The garden was drawn into this spirit of reform. Under horticultural reformers, the garden became a metaphor for civic duty and responsibility, civilizing raw towns and cities especially in the newly developing West. Gardens would also Canadianize new immigrants, and keeping rural families on the farm. So horticultural reformers were not only trying to maintain the status quo in the countryside, they were also concerned by the increasing numbers of urban Canadians who were, they felt, becoming unhealthily divorced from the healing quality of nature, the goodness of rural life, and the moral benefits of the garden. You were to garden to save your cityweary soul, to make yourself whole. On the other hand, for other Canadians, to misquote Freud, a rose was just a rose.
Horticultural reformers were energized and supported by the City Beautiful Movement. Begun in the United States in the 1890s, this movement galvanized many Canadians, especially in urban Canada, to call for greater beautification efforts. The turn of the century witnessed a flurry of activity as professionals began drawing up plans to achieve the ideal City Beautiful – a city of parks, trees, boulevards and stately buildings.
The scale of urban beautification varied – from large-scale urban park development to flower boxes on Main Street, from the designed gardens of the rich to the small pocket gardens of petunias and geraniums of the less well off. The smaller, less grandiose beautifying efforts were conducted by horticultural societies and civic improvement groups. They went about “planting up” the city, carrying on the fight against ugliness.
Enter William Terril Macoun – the right person at the right time.
So, who was W.T. Macoun, as he was called? Born in1869, Macoun was the son of John Macoun, a self-taught botanist, who rose to become the Dominion Botanist of the Geological Survey of Canada. He is famous for his spirited justification of the agricultural capabilities of the western interior. His opinions helped confirm the route of the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway through prairie grasslands.
Son, W.T. Macoun began his career as William Saunder’s assistant, mostly doing manual labour, but soon rising in the Farm’s hierarchy. His first serious assignment was to pursue apple breeding work with Saunders and on his own. Macoun himself originated a number of apple hybrids, of which the Lobo is still sold. By the early 1890s, he was placed in charge of the Arboretum and Botanic Garden. In 1898, he was appointed Horticulturist to the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa and Curator of the Arboretum.
By 1903, Macoun’s work was said to be “probably more varied than that of any other horticulturist connected with experimental stations in North America.” In 1910, at age 41, Macoun was made Dominion Horticulturist, responsible for supervising the horticultural work of the entire Experimental Farms System, which expanded during his lifetime to 27 stations and numerous sub-stations across Canada.
From the late 1890s to his death in 1933, Macoun pops up everywhere in Canada and the United States – in newspaper and magazine articles, horticultural society debates, fruit grower association annual meetings. You name the meeting and he was there. You name the issue and he had an opinion on it. Or if you had a question such as what was the best fertilizer for apple trees or shrub roses, he had the answer. Armed with a strong sense of horticultural mission, Macoun tirelessly spread the “gospel” of horticulture in person to horticultural, agricultural and civic beautification societies across Canada. For example, Macoun once advised his readers in the Ottawa Tribune to buy flower seeds.
“If you do not think you can afford to buy any seeds, I am sure that there are many ways in which most of you can economize to save the necessary amount. Fifty cents would buy you quite a variety…Make up your mind to forgo riding on the street cars for a time. Spend less on things which are not absolutely necessary, and even if needs be go without a meal or two but buy some flower seeds.”
Macoun was a great enabler who helped Canadian home gardeners, florists, nursery owners, plant breeders and municipal officials translate the “ideal” into the “real”. He not only wanted to create and provide fruits, vegetables, flowers, trees and shrubs hardy enough for all areas of Canada, he also wanted to add to the nation’s economy by increasing the harvests of economically important fruits and vegetables. He wanted to bolster the nursery and florist business. As well, he wanted to help spread “civilization” across the country by giving urban and rural gardeners and civic improvers the materials to beautify their homes, towns and cities. He was a great champion of improving Canadian native plant materials. In 1910, before an audience of florists and horticulturists, he urged them to use more of these native plant materials:
“There is a growing sentiment in Canada in favor of Canadian things. We are becoming more proud of our country every year. We are looking for an individuality which will stand for Canada, and one of the best ways we can impress our individuality on the people of other countries and our own is to make Canadian trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants a prominent feature of our landscapes.”
He was talking about species of oaks and maples, highbush cranberries, dogwoods, hackberries and so on.
Through Macoun, the horticultural reform movement and the mission of the Experimental Farms System were united and transformed into an effective engine of change. Under his leadership, horticultural improvement was organized and systematized and horticultural knowledge on such critical issues as shipping, storage, or fertilizing were addressed by the Farm’s Horticulture Division. In fact, by the time of his death in 1933, the Division had become much more sophisticated, researching vegetable crops, pomology, ornamental horticulture, plant physiology and nutrition, cold storage and fruit and vegetable products.
By the early 1930s, for example, great advances had been made in defining the optimum temperatures needed to safely transport cut flowers, or in refining refrigeration techniques so that fruit and other perishables could be safely stored until used.
Macoun was not working in a vacuum, but he was a catalyst. For example, he greatly supported horticultural societies. Not only would he speak at the Ottawa Horticultural Society meetings, he often brought along new plant from the Farm to distribute to the members for them to test in their home gardens.
Plant breeders, Macoun felt, were more important than ever in the push to provide home gardeners with an expanded range of commercially available plant material, and nursery owners and florists with dependable materials to sell or work with.
Up to the late 1800s, Canadian plant breeding was quite informal. You could count the number of serious hybridists on one hand before the 1890s, such as Charles Arnold of Paris, Ontario. Arnold was praised as early as the 1870s for his experiments in grape hybridizing. However very few of these early experimenters were working on ornamentals. As Macoun observed, “their work was done on a relatively small scale as they had neither the means, the land nor the time to do this work in a large, continuous way.” Many horticultural advances in the mid-1800s until the turn of the century occurred through trial and error. There was too little information available on the adaptability of a wide range of ornamentals to all regions of Canada.
Most early activity centred on plant introductions tested by government and academic horticulturists, nursery owners and enthusiastic home gardeners who brought in plant material from other regions and countries and tested it to see how it stood up to our winters, pests and diseases. Obviously, the most intense activity was directed towards cash crops, although by the late 1800s, there was a quickening of interest in hybridizing ornamentals, probably given the influence of the beautification movement and people with the time and means to create home gardens. The results of these early introductions, for example experiments with wallflowers, were published in letters to the editor in horticultural and agricultural journals, newspaper garden columns, annual reports of horticultural societies and associations. This information was also spread by the Farm and by the horticulture departments of such influential colleges as the Ontario Agricultural College, now the University of Guelph. These colleges also had a major impact on advancing horticulture in Canada.
The pace of hybridization quickened in the first decade of the 20th century. Professional plant breeders became more numerous and hybridization theory and techniques had become quite sophisticated.
To insure greater success, hybridists became more systematic, usually specializing by working on a particular line: disease-resistant wheat, hardy hybrid tea roses, red gladiolus, miniature African violets and so on. At the Farm, Macoun was instrumental in maintaining the Arboretum’s varied botanical collection to ensure that a large gene pool was available for plant experiments. As well, information expanded on how and when to effect successful crosses, how to select the most promising seedlings, how to test under different conditions, and what standards to use to record the results.
One of Canada’s famous early hybridists, whose work Macoun reported on from time to time, was Henry Harris Groff, called the “wizard of Simcoe” by some, or “the Luther Burbank of Ontario” by others. Banker by day, plant breeder at all other times, Groff was best known for his hybrid iris and gladioli, which next to the carnation, were the most used by florists of the time.
Groff certainly practiced his breeding trials on a large scale: at one time, it was estimated that he produced over a million gladioli seedlings. He was credited with single-handedly transforming this despised semi-tropical plant into a plant that was adapted to all climates and soil types, with magnificent flowers available in a huge range of colours, which were sold around the world.
Before the annual meeting of the Horticultural Societies Association of Ontario in 1909, Groff summed up the mood of hybridists at that time: “This is an age of hybrids, and the limit of our activity is the only limit to be placed on the possibilities available for the exercise of the science of breeding.” Another hybridist was more cautious and called hybridization “a game of chance between men and plants.”
But back to Macoun. By 1910 when he was named Dominion Horticulturist, Macoun had a solid decade of networking behind him, hundreds of articles written, thousands of meetings attended. He was poised to implement his vision for the progress of Canadian horticulture. By 1911, Macoun was being praised for the Farm’s work in investigating plant diseases and insect control, including the new science of chemical sprays for plants in the field as well as in the greenhouse. By 1993, he had successfully lobbied for greenhouses devoted to ornamental research and was overseeing most of the hybridizing work for fruit, vegetables, trees, shrubs and ornamental plants across Canada.
Unfortunately, this increasing momentum for ornamentals testing and breeding came to an almost total halt with the onset of the First World War. The focus turned to helping market gardeners and home gardeners grow food. Macoun was at the forefront of the war gardens movement, which saw market gardens expanded and front lawns and flower beds dug up and converted into vegetable gardens. The Horticulture Division switched gears to testing and breeding vegetables that would produce food in our short growing season. For example, some staff focused on testing the productivity of seed potatoes harvested before they were completely mature.
The war also had a profound affect on the supply of ornamental plant materials for florists and nursery owners. Plants, seeds and bulbs from enemy nations, such as Germany, were embargoed. As well, European ornamentals growers reduced their production as they increasingly focused on supplying vegetable seeds and plants for domestic use.
The lesson was not lost on Canadian plant suppliers and growers, such as Ottawa nurseryman and florist, Charles Craig. Professional horticulturists, who had experienced great difficulty in obtaining plant material during the war, began calling for more Canadian-grown and originated material. One grower said: “We have been too dependant upon Great Britain and the Continent for stock, ….”
With the end of the First World War, interest in ornamentals was renewed, coupled with a call for new varieties, colours and forms of plants to enhance our gardens. One commentator noted that the long war period had, for the general public, probably stimulated a longing for beautiful flowers and gardens — symbols of peace and repose. Another observed, somewhat bombastically, that this demand for new, improved plant material was “…perhaps more intense now than at any period in the history of floriculture.” Other spokespersons reinforced the belief that Canadian grown or originated stock was more reliable and stronger than imported stock, which by now had to be shipped long distances, fumigated and kept at holding points to see if it was infested with insects or disease.
Nursery owners and florists were certainly eager for plants. They urged the Farm to breed and test the flowers and plants they needed for their business. For example, not only did the florists want the Farm to breed smaller chrysanthemums for floral work rather than the huge mums it had bred for exhibition purposes, but they also wanted the Farm to test grow a representative sample of the hundreds of new carnation and rose hybrids to see what the best varieties were. In this way, the Farm would save, in their words, “the hardworking florist a lot of disappointment and expense.”
Macoun heeded the call. Under him, the Experimental Farms System became a leader in the resurgence of ornamentals research and breeding. Macoun spread the projects to private growers, such as British Columbia bulb growers, and to other experimental stations, such as suggesting new lines of lilies be developed at the Morden, Manitoba, and the Summerland, British Columbia, stations.
In fact, beginning in the 1920s, intensive research, testing and hybridizing of hardy ornamentals became one of the System’s priorities, with Ottawa the centre of operations. But Macoun needed to find someone to undertake the experimental work. He did an exceptional thing for his time. In 1920, he hired Isabella Preston for this position. She was doubly unique: not only was she participating in a newly recognized profession, but she was the only North American woman to do so professionally.
This shy Englishwoman came to Canada in 1912 after a couple of years at a ladies’ horticultural school. She enrolled in the horticultural program at the Ontario Agricultural College, under the well-known horticulturist and plant breeder, James W. Crow. Preston soon gave up classes and began working full-time for Crow in the college greenhouses, honing the craft of plant breeding, and concentrating on lilies. In 1916, just 8 short years after arriving in Canada as an unknown, she had perfected and introduced a while-flowered, intensely hardy lily, the Creelman lily (named after the president of the college), which set the lily world on fire. This plant vaulted her into the top echelons of hybridists in Canada and brought her to Macoun’s attention.
Preston described her transition from researcher to centre-stage hybridist quite simply:
Dr. Macoun was looking for someone to do breeding work with ornamental plants so I applied for the position. I wanted to discontinue working with vegetables which I had to do during the war. Dr. Macoun gave me a list of plants and told me to see what I could do with them.”
This modest statement hides the fact that Macoun suggested she work on six different genera chosen to be less likely to duplicate the efforts of other plant breeders at work in Canada … who were fiercely competitive. The genera were: lily, rose, lilac, Siberian iris, columbine and flowering crabapple — quite a challenging range. Most breeders would specialize in one or perhaps two genera because the work involved. The slow acquisition of information on timing, technique and cultivation could be enough for one person’s lifetime.
Soon after Isabella Preston was hired, Macoun went on his annual tour of prairie stations and to meet nurserymen and plant breeders. Preston had told him along what lines she planned to proceed. According to one source, Macoun informed horticulturists at the Brandon Station as well as Manitoban Frank Skinner (another talented self-taught plant hybridist) about the work she was to undertake. Preston was reported to be very angry.
However, she enthusiastically began working in May 1920. She meticulously recorded the crosses she made as she worked her way through the collections, choosing seed and pollen parents. The intense work she did that summer laid a firm foundation for her subsequent efforts in Ottawa. In fact, many of her later originations stemmed from the work begun that summer. She would, by the time she retired in the late 1940s, name and introduce 52 varieties of lilacs, 15 rosybloom crabapples, 28 winter-hardy roses, and 23 Siberian iris. The columbines were the only trials that were discontinued. Lilies, of which she introduced over 20, continued to be her specialty.
She collected honours, awards and international recognition throughout her career. Although she was proud of her achievements, she didn’t like the fuss. She once told her niece when they were visiting the prestigious Philadelphia flower show: “Don’t say a word to anyone who I am or they’ll all flock around me.” She was especially proud of the lilies she bred that were hardy enough to survive prairie winters. By the time she retired, she was praised as “the Grand Lady of Canadian Horticulture.”
Sadly, it is difficult to find any of her originations today. However, her hybrids were used by many hybridists in their own work, and so their echoes are found in modern breeding lines. While very few of her originations live on in nursery catalogues, some Preston lilacs are still sold.
The Farm disseminated the plants it developed to nursery owners through professional organizations and home gardeners through horticulture societies. It also widely published the results of its hybrid testing in professional journals, and described the new offerings in newspapers and magazines. Preston also maintained a prodigious correspondence with plant breeders around the world.
Macoun continued to be one of Canada’s most prolific and influential garden writers, averaging between eight and 10 publications a year, and sometimes more, ranging from fruit culture to potatoes, to hardy roses, trees, shrubs and perennials tested in the Central Experimental Farm arboretum.
In addition to writing for professional horticulturists, Macoun and Preston wrote for general audiences, as well as the professionals. Their articles were published in all the important magazines of the day: Family Herald, Canadian Countryman, Canadian Horticulturist, Canadian Florist, Canadian Homes and Gardens.
Not surprisingly, this most gregarious man was a tireless lecturer. Macoun’s lectures were praised for widely spreading the knowledge of horticulture to groups across Canada, such as Women’s Institutes, professional organizations, church groups, horticultural societies, and provincial fruit growers associations.
On the other hand, Preston, shy and self-effacing, was much happier strolling along the Farm’s “lilac walk”, or the mixed perennial borders and the rose gardens, checking on her own hybrids to see in spring what had survived the long winter, and in summer to see if the flowers and forms produced were worth keeping.
She was quite protective of all her trial gardens at the Farm. In the late 1930s or early 1940s, she happened to be wandering through the gardens one afternoon when she spied a man picking flowers for a bouquet. He supposedly was Jean François Pouliot, a liberal M.P. from a prominent political family. When she ordered him to stop, he merely said, “Do you know who I am?” She allegedly replied tartly, “I don’t care if you are the King of England, you are not to pick my flowers.”
By the time of Macoun’s death in 1933, Canadian ornamental plant materials had expanded considerably. New colours and hardier varieties had been created and introduced by a growing cadre of plant breeders. Plant materials were being imported from around the world supported by the advances made in packing and transportation, which brought stronger, better stock into the markets, which increased the nursery and florist business. This expanding selection allowed Canadian gardeners to design gardens of greater sophistication and variety. I see this period, spanning Macoun’s working life, as transitional in Canadian gardening, as we emerged into a garden-as-art phase. By the time Preston retired in 1946, Canadians were no longer gardening as a civic duty, but as an increasing hobby.
The work and enthusiasm of Macoun and Preston greatly influenced the development of horticulture in Canada and placed trowels in more Canadians’ hands. Through their efforts, we not only gained and maintained a belief in the possibilities and promise of the Canadian garden, but were also given the tools and materials to realize these possibilities. They pushed the horticultural frontiers ever northward, stimulating later breeders to venture even further into the unknown to create new, improved varieties with different colours, forms, heights and stronger resistance to disease and pests. Their life work, centered in Ottawa, provided the foundation on which we continue to create gardens to reflect our own dreams and passions. We are lucky that through the activism of Heritage Ottawa and other concerned citizens, that the cultural landscape of Ottawa’s Farm now has greater protection as a national historic site.
Please click on the following link to the pdf of the PowerPoint presentation that accompanied my talk: CEF history
©Edwinna von Baeyer. If you quote from this short essay, a citation would be appreciated.