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In Memoriam – Freek Vrugtman

March 31, 2022

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens.

An institution with an 80-year history has seen many amazing people participate in its development and operation. Over time they lend their own skills, aptitudes, and personalities to the gardens, collections, natural lands, and the associated knowledge and programs that make a place like RBG a rich experience. With such a history comes the inevitable moments when you have to say goodbye, too. On 3 March 2022 RBG’s former Curator Freek Vrugtman passed away in Hamilton, having been part of horticultural life at RBG since 1968.

Freek was born in The Netherlands in 1927. His early education was interrupted by World War II. After the war, he apprenticed at a tree nursery and then trained in gardening in Germany. He emigrated to Canada in 1952 and first worked on a farm in Donegal, Ontario and then as a gardener at Manitoba’s Morden Research Station. He criss-crossed the country to follow opportunities, becoming a nurseryman in Ocean Park, British Columbia, a gardener at the Dominion Arboretum in Ottawa, and a landscape foreman for a paper mill in Quebec. He entered the world of botanical gardens in 1956 as the Curator of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden in Vancouver. Freek continued his education at UBC, completing a BSA in 1963 with a major in ornamental horticulture and plant taxonomy. That year was also a big one personally too as he met another Dutch UBC student, Ina van Teunenbroek, in his plant taxonomy class: they married in 1964.

Freek June 2007

Encouraged by UBC faculty, Freek enrolled at Cornell University for graduate studies. While at Cornell Ina completed her B.Sc. in 1965 and Freek completed his M.Sc. with a major in plant taxonomy and a minor in floriculture and ornamental horticulture in 1966. That year Ina and Freek returned to Europe for post-graduate studies on the operation of botanical gardens in Europe.

Freek joined RBG in 1968 as Curator of Collections, and Ina was hired afterward as Librarian. The Lilac collection had just been moved to the Arboretum and expanded thanks to a legacy gift from Hamilton businessman Colin Osborne in memory of his wife Katie. Working with RBG’s other staff, including Charles Holetich and Leslie Laking, Freek directed considerable attention to the collection and became the International Registrar for Lilacs in the Genus Syringa in 1976, as RBG became the International Cultivar Registration Authority, or ICRA, for Lilacs. Whenever a new cultivar was bred anywhere in the world the breeder would submit a request to Freek for its entry into the International Registry. Freek would review all such applications and guide the breeder through the process. As Registrar Freek became widely known as the international expert on Lilac cultivars.

Holetick and Vrugtman early planting magnolia collection west 1970
Freek (left) and Charles Holetich examining one of RBG’s Magnolias in 1970.

Freek’s professional service to horticultural science spread far beyond Lilacs, and beyond RBG too. He participated in dozens of initiatives within horticultural science and botanical gardens and helped edit several editions of the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. He was also a part-time lecturer for landscape architecture courses at the University of Toronto and undertook research and advises other institutions in Germany, China, and the Philippines.

Following his retirement in 1992 Freek was named RBG’s Curator Emeritus, and received several awards from the International Society for Horticultural Science and the International Lilac Society as well as the 1993 Award of Merit from the American Public Gardens Association. He continued to serve on behalf of RBG as the International Registrar as a volunteer, finally handing off the role to Dr. Mark DeBard of the International Lilac Society in 2019. He also undertook a major revision of John Fiala’s classic Lilacs: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia which was published in 2008 by Timber Press. Ina served as Librarian until 1995 and is now living in Dundas.

Ina and Freek for Nat
Ina and Freek

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