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Nova Scotia horticulturist created important new varietals

Donald Craig (right) and colleague Lou Ricketson inspect strawberry cultivars in 1983.

Donald Craig was awed by the beauty of a rhododendron's spectacular flaring petals and deep evergreen leaves. He took such delight in the magenta, purple, pink and white blooms that from the Kentville Agriculture Centre in the heart of Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley he carefully developed several varieties of the glorious plant and in the process pioneered the introduction and popularization of rhododendrons not only in Nova Scotia, but throughout the Maritimes.

"Rhododendrons were his passion," said his son Colin.

He started breeding them in 1952. In the following decades, he created several beautiful and hearty varieties, including the hybrid R. Minas Maid, which was developed in 1979 after crossbreeding other crosses developed more than a decade earlier at the Kentville centre, with the popular Mist Maiden.

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The plant was immortalized when it was featured on a Canada Post stamp in 2009. "Its rich, vibrant pink flowers and dark green foliage create a striking display," Craig explained at the time. "It is also very sturdy, reliable and easy to grow."

A founding member and past president of the Rhododendron Society of Canada, Craig, who died on Oct. 11 at the age of 87, was admired for his award-winning rhododendron cultivars such as Acadia and Evangeline. His breeding program produced more than 15,000 seedlings. The centre's rhododendron gardens, which he oversaw, has attracted thousands of visitors and won countless prizes at flower shows.

As a research scientist, Craig not only developed rhododendrons, but raspberry, azalea and strawberry varieties that decades later remain some of the top cultivars planted across the country. A specialist in strawberries, his Kent and Annapolis varieties are still considered among the best in Canada. His Nova raspberry variety, which is resistant to late yellow rust, is the leading plant of its kind in eastern Canada, said Andrew Jamieson, a research scientist with Agriculture Canada in Kentville.

When Craig started at the research station in the late 1940s, productivity was low in Nova Scotia's strawberry industry. Many plants carried viruses, so berry yields were low. To combat this problem, he introduced a plant certification program to produce virus-free plants so they would start out healthy and have better yields. He developed a vibrant nursery with millions of plants produced, not just for Nova Scotia but across North America.

While grapes were not his specialty, he found himself playing a pivotal role in the foundation of Nova Scotia's wine industry. Grapes were started at what was then called the Kentville Research Station around 1913, but Craig undertook to evaluate new plants and kept grapes from being forgotten and overshadowed by other crops.

"He was interested in seeing things happen," said Roger Dial, founder of Grand Pre winery in Grand Pre, N.S. "He quietly went about getting things done."

Craig is credited for introducing the variety, Vineland 53261, which was later named L'Acadie by Dial. L'Acadie has become Nova Scotia's signature white wine grape. Craig also brought in the red hybrid, Marechal Foch, as well as the hardy Michurinets.

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While he loved to visit Dial in his vineyard to see how the plants were faring, he didn't pay much attention to the finished product. When offered a glass of wine, he would kindly accept, but rarely if ever had a second.

Hans Christian Jost of Jost Vineyards in Malagash, N.S., remembers a critical meeting between his father, Hans, and Craig. While the two men had initially met to discuss strawberries, their discussion quickly turned to grapes.

The Jost family had moved to Nova Scotia in 1970 from Germany, where they operated a vineyard. In Canada, they were told that Nova Scotia wasn't the right climate for growing grapes. Craig didn't agree, and in 1978 he supplied Jost's father with five vines to put in the ground.

"He was just curious to see how they would do," Jost said.

He also gave him about 450 kg of grapes he had grown at the research station. The Jost family made wine from them and it wasn't bad. The following year, Jost's father planted 400 vines for personal use and to experiment. "He figured if they panned out, we'd never have to go to the liquor store again," Jost said. In 1981, the Jost family planted 4,000 vines and their winery was born. "If it weren't for Dr. Craig we [the Nova Scotia wine industry]would easily be 20 years behind."

Horticulture was in Craig's blood. He was born in Kentville in 1924 to Evan Craig and Rachel (née Donaldson). His father was the research station's beekeeper. The family home bordered on the station and it became Craig's childhood playground. After studying at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, McGill University and the University of New Hampshire, where he earned his PhD, he returned home.

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"He always preferred to be outside, rather than inside," said his son Bill.

After his retirement in 1983, Craig and his wife, Mary, moved to their daughter's property in Upper Dyke, just outside Kentville. By planting thousands of seedlings, he created a breathtaking garden filled with his beloved rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolia trees.

In 1990, he received the Wilder Medal from the American Pomological Society for his strawberry breeding and that same year received honorary degrees from Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.

Craig leaves his wife, Mary, sons Bill and Colin, daughter Suzanne, six grandchildren, five step-grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son David.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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