The Great Scottish Plant Hunters – George Forrest

Scotland is a country renowned for its remarkable people. When thinking of remarkable Scots in a horticultural context, it is immediately the great Scottish plant hunters who come to mind. Responsible for introducing many of the plant species we grow in our gardens, Scottish plant hunters have contributed towards botany, taxonomy, and horticulture with collections of plants, seed, and intricately prepared pressed specimens. Of many notable Scottish collectors, George Forrest was arguably the most noteworthy.

George Forrest (1873-1932) is considered by many to be one of the greatest plant hunters of all time. George was born in Falkirk and led what seems to have been a rather ordinary life until 1891, when he first left Scotland for Australia. Returning home in 1902, George by chance discovered an ancient stone coffin whilst fishing in Tweedsdale. This discovery led to an introduction to Professor Isaac Bailey Balfour, Regis Keeper of The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. This was a pivotal point in George’s story as it not only landed him a job in the herbarium in the Edinburgh Gardens but it was through working for Professor Bailey Balfour that George would get the opportunity to begin living as a career plant hunter.  

First Trip to Yunnan

George’s first plant collecting trip was in 1904 to Yunnan province in China. Initial interest in the province of Yunnan for its botanical treasure had been sparked by seed and pressed plant specimens sent from Yunnan by a French Missionary named Abbé Delavay. Both private collectors and Botanic institutions of the time were keen to obtain new species of Rhododendron, Primula, Iris, Lillium, and Peonia along with a host of other genera the province had given clues that it may offer. 

It was a Liverpool cotton trader named Arthur K. Bulley who put out the word that he was looking to finance a plant collector to travel to Yunnan. George was put forward for the position by Professor Balfour and after some negotiation, the deal was done. George wasted no time and set off for Yunnan, eager to exploit its botanical wonders. The journey to remote China from Scotland in 1904 must have been awful and once there, conditions no better. During this first trip, poor weather and landslides caused trouble with equipment and collections. George maintained close links with the Edinburgh gardens and most of his collections were sent back there. George subsequently lead six further expeditions to Yunnan. On January 6th 1932, he died and was buried in the Chinese province on what was to be his final expedition. 

Attention to Detail

What made Forrest such a notable collector was his attention to detail in the collections he made. From early expeditions, the quality of his pressed plant specimens was noted. George was meticulous in his approach to collecting specimens. He would return to sites at different times of the year in order to collect and press different floral structures such as flowers and seed pods which would not be present during the same season. 

The quality of his seed collections were also reputed to be of the highest standards. What set George ahead of many of his competitor plant hunters was his approach to the task. George built a network of local collectors and trained them in the disciplines of collecting and correctly preparing seeds and herbarium specimens. A competent photographer, he would complement his collections with high quality photographs of many of the plants he was collecting. What made George exceptional was his determination to get the best results. 

The legacy of his collections can still be seen more than one hundred years since George Forrest’s first expedition to Yunnan. Many plants grown in Scottish gardens were introduced by George Forrest or have been hybridised with these introductions. In total, George Forrest collected more than 31,000 plant specimens in China and was responsible for 1200 species new to science. He also contributed to the discovery of many new mammal, bird, and insect species during his travels. 

Having such success in plant collecting lead to many of his introductions being named in his honour, using the specific epithet forrestii. George Forrest was noted for his diverse collections and was responsible for introducing garden staples such as Osmanthus delavayi, Clematis armandii, Roscoea cautleyoides, and Acer davidii. It is for his collections of Primula and Rhododendron, perhaps two of the most celebrated introduced plant species grown in Scottish gardens, that George is most recognised for. 

Osmanthus delavayi

King of Shrubs

Rhododendron is considered by many to be king amongst flowering shrubs. This is with good reason and Scottish gardens are particularly well suited to growing them. In total, George made over 5000 Rhododendron collections and introduced over 300 new species, figures no other plant collector came close to. Many of the species introduced have been awarded the prestigious Award of Garden Merit and have gone on to be used in hybridisation. Notable species collected by Forrest include rubiginosum, chosen for its early delicate pink to purple blooms. Rhododendron sinogrande is another well known George Forrest collection famed for its vast proportions, particularly that of its foliage. It also has wonderful gigantic trusses of creamy, pale yellow bell-shaped flowers. Rhododendron griersonianum is another celebrated Forrest collection which has been extensively used in hybridisation. His field notes noted not only its beautiful carmine/rose flowers and neat growth but also its rarity and need to be grown in well lit but sheltered areas. 

Rhododendron rubiginosum

George Forrest contributed heavily to the ornamental plants grown in the gardens of Scotland as well as much of the temperate world. His work and collections are legendary amongst Botanic and Taxonomic institutions across the globe. Perhaps his timing in getting to Yunnan was fortunate but it is certainly doubtful that any other individual in his position would have done what he did quite so well. 

From Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Lachlan Rae trained at Barony College Dumfries and later at RGBE Edinburgh and SRUC Edinburgh. He won CIH Young Horticulturist of the Year 2017.

Since leaving Edinburgh, he has been looking after estate gardens as Head Gardener, notably at Wiston Estate, West Sussex and Auchendolly Estate, Dumfries and Galloway. He is currently Senior Horticulturist at Gresgarth Hall and you can follow his activities on Instagram.

One comment

Leave a Reply