Cornell University, 1966, MSc, Plant Taxonomy
University of British Columbia, 1963, BSc, Agriculture (Ornamental Horticulture and Plant Taxonomy)


Freek Vrugtman was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in 1927. Most of his teenage years were World War II years, which prematurely terminated his highschool education. His first full-time employment was as deckhand on a Rhine river-barge. Apprenticeship in a tree nursery, vocational training and employment as gardener, nurseryman and plant propagator in Germany were followed by emigration to Canada in 1952.

Freek climbed the immigrant ladder: Farm-worker in Donegal, Ontario; gardener at the Morden, Manitoba, Research Station; nurseryman in Ocean Park, BC; gardener at the Dominion Arboretum, Ottawa, Ontario; landscape foreman at the E. B. Eddy paper Mill in Hull, Quebec; then West again to fill the vacancy of Curator of the UBC Botanical Garden in 1956. Cross appointments followed in 1959 as Herbarium Research Associate in the Dept of Botany, and Instructor 1 in the Faculty of Agriculture, teaching a course in plant propagation. Dr W. L. MacDonald, Professor Emeritus of English, illustrated native trees and was an occasional visitor at the Botanical Garden. When Freek became eligible for Canadian citizenship in 1957 he asked Drs MacDonald and Katherine Beamish (Botany) to be his sponsors. After the ceremony they went to the MacDonald home for a drink. During the conversation he asked Freek why he had never attended university. World War II events brought highschool instruction to an end in 1944, about the time he should have finished grade 11. MacDonald advised Freek to send his report cards to the Department of Education in Victoria for an evaluation.

Encouraged by Drs John Neill (Agr.) and T. M. C. (‘Tommy’) Taylor (Botany), and after completing Grade 13 English in night school, Freek enrolled as a mature student in 1959 while continuing to work part-time. One of his responsibilities was taking care of the greenhouse on the roof of the Biological Science building, producing and/or taking care of the plants the various lab instructors required for their course work. Freek majored in ornamental horticulture and plant taxonomy (BSA 1963). The oral presentation of his undergraduate essay on the Genus Daphne earned him the 1963 Biely-Coulthard Trophy; he had been well-prepared by Doug Ormrod’s (Agr.) undergrad seminar course and the Sigma Tau Upsilon agricultural fraternity Public Speaking Course. Third and fourth year plant taxonomy were a special challenge since Freek was the sole undergrad taking these courses. As the best student in fourth year Botany he received the 1963 Vancouver Natural History Society Botany Award.

Freek fondly recalls certain ‘highlights’ of his 7.5 years on the UBC campus. Cannabis sativa already made the news in the 1950s. J. C. ‘Barney’ MacGregor, the Dairy Cattle Herdsman, had never seen a marihuana plant, so Freek obtained a few seeds through the botanical garden seed exchange and Barney grew them among the corn plants; a dried specimen may still be in the Herbarium among the collections of cultivated and native plans made by Freek on the campus and in several regions of BC. It was a sad day when a construction worker trimmed-up and topped the Pinus coulteri, at the time the only existing representative of that species on the Canada mainland.

Being a working student left no time for campus social life, although Freek did find time to be a reader for Peter Claxton, a blind student in Animal Husbandry. There were a few privileges for a student cum instructor, such as having an office spot, a faculty library card, and access to coffee & doughnut at the Buildings & Grounds lunch room for 10 Cents. The Student Intellectual Stunt Committee found unique ways to get its points across. One time they invaded the campus with a Sherman tank in protest to premier W.A.C. ‘Wacky’ Bennett cutting university funds or some other long forgotten issue. Another time they placed an old automobile in front of the Student Union Building; for a dollar one could hit the car with a sledge hammer, working off ones exam frustrations. In the 1950s the Student Undergrad Society frowned on co-eds wearing blue jeans and tight sweaters to class; how times have changed. All frosh took Dean Eagles’ History of Agriculture. Freek ‘stood out’, being the only one in his class who could identify the threshing-flail, had mowed with a scythe, had plowed with a one-share one-horse plow, and had taken Latin in high-school. Students can be resourceful. Every night a VW camper would pull up behind one of the huts on West Mall; with the help of an extension cord the occupant kept his quarters comfortable; in the morning the camper would move off to a parking lot. The Biological Sciences Building had a dead-end, unfinished stairway that ended in a landing; it made a temporary home to a student, at least for one semester. Dr Neil MacLean once treated his class to melons & ice-cream in the plant pathology lab. The daily coffee-break in the Herbarium prep-room was the time and place for informal chats with T. M. C. ‘Tommy’ Taylor, professor of botany. At the Aggie Judging Contest Freek’s team, calling itself ‘The Magnificent Seven’, earned first prize, dinner with their professors in the Faculty Club – Wow! The 4th-year Aggie Field Trip was another highlight. Dr V. C. ‘Bert’ Brink lead the one week event during which everyone called him Bert; once back on campus is was ‘Sir’ again. Co-eds were excused from visiting the AI Station. Concluding the tour of the Summerland Research Station was a twenty minute stop at the peach orchard; the students must have gathered a ton of peaches; they lasted for three days and all the way back to Point Gray.

Urged on by Tommy Taylor Freek went on to graduate studies at Cornell University, made possible by a teaching assistantship. In 1964 he was elected member of Pi Alpha Xi, Alpha Chapter, National Honorary Fraternity. He received a MS in 1966, with a major in plant taxonomy and a minor in floriculture and ornamental horticulture. In 1964 Freek married Ina (nee van Teunenbroek, Cornell BS 1965), who was a student in his 1963 fall-semester class on Taxonomy of Cultivated Plants. The 1966 William Frederick Dreer Award (Cornell), a British Council grant, and a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) supported their postgraduate study of botanical gardens in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany and Austria; they asked three simple question: What are you doing? How are you doing it? Whom are you doing it for? An International Agricultural Centre Fellowship enabled them to work on the collection of maples in the Wageningen University Arboretum and Botanic Garden.

From 1968 until his retirement in 1992 Freek was Curator of Collections at Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton, Ontario. Through necessity he became interested and involved in the principles of the naming of cultivated plants and in the registration of cultivar names, compiling the first lists of Cultivar Name Registration Authorities (ICRAs) and their publications, and being appointed International Lilac Registrar in 1976. Freek served on editorial committees for several editions of the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, and participated in several other working groups dealing with these and related topics. He was part-time lecturer (1968-1991) and coordinator (1972-1991) of the plant materials course for third-year students of Landscape Architecture, University of Toronto. Abroad, he was a visiting research associate at the test-garden for woody and herbaceous plants of the University of Applied Sciences Weihenstephan, Bavaria, Germany, in 1974; he served as an advisor to the Chinese National Committee for Registration of Cultivar Names of Ornamental Plants, 1990-1992; he and his wife served as advisors to the Makiling Botanic Garden and Forest Project, University of the Philippines at Los Banos, in 1992.

Freek’s primary retirement projects are the International Register and Checklist of Cultivar Names in the Genus Syringa, published by Royal Botanical Gardens; and Lilacs: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia, published by Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, in August 2008. Freek was named Curator Emeritus of Royal Botanical Gardens; he is the recipient of an International Society for Horticultural Science Medal, the Directors Award of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, and several awards of the International Lilac Society. In 1973 Freek and Ina built their house on a one acre rural lot in Carlisle, Ontario, where they enjoy their active retirement.

R Blair and C R Nichols, 2003

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