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George Forrest: the plant world's Indiana Jones


When we pick up a few plants at the local garden centre, we rarely give a thought to the brave adventurers who risked their lives to collect the plants from the wild hundreds of years ago. 


Graham Ross introduces one such collector, whose work has had a massive impact on our gardens. You’ll never take a potted primula for granted again!


Man has always had an insatiable desire for new plants. Even the great warrior Alexander the Great found time to collect plants for Aristotle’s successor, the Greek scholar Theophrastus, c.300BC, including the original pink, Dianthus or carnation. Later, as explorers searched the globe for new lands, plant collectors joined them. Their plant discoveries changed the world: tobacco, potatoes, wheat, corn, rice, tomatoes and citrus for food; timber trees for shelter; roses, tulips, camellias and orchids for beautification; and poppies, foxgloves, ginkgo and St. John’s Wort for medicines.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Americas provided a huge seed bank for exploitation, filling pharmacies, glasshouses, gardens and farms with endless produce. But of the list of countries that attracted plant collectors, China was at the top. More accurately, just one province, Yunnan, in the south-west of China, provided rich pickings for those willing to risk life and limb for botanic gardens, nurseries and plant societies in Europe.


Deutzia scabra (Wedding Bell Bush). Photo - Linda Ross


In 1999 Linda and I visited Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, and we were immediately impressed. It was so horticulturally fertile that I yearn to return one day to ‘follow in the footsteps of the great plant hunters’.

One name that stands out from the dozens of foreigners who tramped around the back blocks of Yunnan was George Forrest (1873 – 1932), a real-life Indiana Jones of the plant world.


George Forrest, intrepid Scottish plant collector, with his best companion. Photo - Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

George was born in Scotland and apprenticed, as a teenager, to a local chemist where he observed the importance of the medicinal qualities of plants. He also learnt the skills of plant pressing and the preservation of herbarium specimens.

His adventurous nature encouraged him to travel to Australia during the gold rush in 1891. He stayed for ten years, acquiring vital bush survival skills. He returned to Britain via South Africa in 1902 to work for the herbarium clerk of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. His skills, determination and resourcefulness saw him appointed to an expedition to Western China.

This was the first of ten expeditions he made over the next 26 years, but it could easily have been his last. His party walked into a murderous local conflict. Everyone of the party, apart from Forrest, was killed and all those who had contact with him put to death. He escaped with the help of friendly locals by traveling at night, disguised as a Tibetan. Despite these difficulties he returned to Britain with a bounty of plant samples to study.



Flower of Rhododendron forrestii. Photo - Linda Ross 

After recovering, and undeterred by the obvious dangers, he started out on another plant-hunting expedition to China and the Himalayas this time with a friend from the British Consulate. They survived impenetrable jungles, poisonous plants, insect attack, and tortuous gully and river crossings to discover another hoard of new plants.

Sadly, Forrest’s friend died from malaria. George himself also contracted malaria, which forced him to cancel the expedition and return to Britain.

After recuperating he returned again to China and the land and people he had come to love. He so respected Chinese culture that he later paid for the inoculation of thousands of local Yunnanese people against smallpox.

His next expedition took him to Tibet, Burma, Sichuan province and once more into Yunnan’s forests. Each time he returned to Britain he brought back amazing photographs and bulbs, seeds, cuttings, roots, tubers and herbarium specimens of thousands of new plants unknown to science.

In 1932 on the completion of his most extensive expedition, he collapsed from a heart attack and died in Tengyueh, Yunnan.

George Forrest was responsible for collecting 30,000 specimens of 10,000 plants, of which 1,200 were introduced into cultivation and remain popular with gardeners a hundred years later.

His legacy includes Camellia saluensis, Jasminum polyanthemum, Pieris forrestii (Lily of the Valley shub), Buddleias (butterfly bush), Anemone, Deutzia (wedding bell bush), Berberis, Allium (Ornamental Onions), more than 300 rhododendrons including R. forrestii and R. giganteum, and many primulas.


George Forrest introductions


Plant name: Rhododendron sinogrande

Description: The largest of the rhododendrons features generous trusses of creamy white or yellow flowers, an attractive rough bark and dark wrinkly leaves that can be up to a metre long.

Size: to 15m in the wild, less in gardens

Special comments: give it plenty of room, a little shade and protection from wind to get the most from the impressive flower trusses.



Photo - Linda Ross 


Plant name: Camellia reticulata

Description: from the mountains of south-west China, this vigorous, open-shaped, small tree features plenty of white, pink or red flowers in late winter and early spring

Size: to 10m

Special comments: the floral emblem of Yunnan, this camellia has been cultivated both tea oil and for the ornamental value of its flowers



Photo - Linda Ross 



Plant name: Jasminum polyanthum

Description: Best known of all the jasmines, this evergreen climber produces masses of highly fragrant pink-tipped white flowers in late winter and early spring.

Size: up to 6m

Special comments: can become a weed as the stems layer easily and runners carry a long distance. Keep under control.



Photo - Linda Ross 


Lily of the valley bush

Plant name: Pieris formosa var. forestii

Description: Popular evergreen shrub for temperate climates with vivid red new growth and fragrant bell-shaped flowers in drooping panicles.

Size: 2m x 3m

Special comments: Prefers cool, moist well-drained soil; a position in full sun gives the most flowers; part shade the most luxuriant foliage.



Photo - Linda Ross 


Poker primula

Plant name: Primula vialii

Description: perennial with a red-hot-poker-like red flower spike supporting up to 100 blue-violet flowers opening ormthe bottom up.

Size: 50cm x 30cm

Special comments: likes a shady, moist, humus-rich position in a woodland-style garden.



Photo - Linda Ross 


Ornamental garlic

Plant name: Allium giganteum

Description: perennial with stunning heads of lilac-pink, star-shaped flowers in summer on long strong stems.

Size: 150cm x 15cm

Special comments: George Forrest introduced a number of alliums from China into England, and they are now regular features in classic English flower borders



Photo - Linda Ross 


Text: Graham Ross


About this article

Author: Graham Ross