Collector who risked death to harvest the flowers of China

George Forrest
November 12, 2004

This year marks the centenary of when plant collector George Forrest set out on the first of his seven expeditions to Yunnan, China.

This has appropriately been marked by special exhibitions at the Royal Horticultural Society and elsewhere. Forrest was probably the greatest of all the collectors of Chinese plants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Unlike most of the other collectors, such as E. H. Wilson and Frank Kingdon-Ward, Forrest never wrote a book about his work and his adventures, which makes this carefully and extensively researched work most welcome.

In addition to researching the archives of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Ness Botanic Garden, the principal institutions with which Forrest was associated, Brenda McLean found a biscuit tin full of his letters in Inverness and a box of documents in his granddaughter's attic.

This and extensive searching elsewhere has enabled the author to reconstruct Forrest's life and to portray many aspects of his character.

Throughout his life, Forrest was supported by sponsors who provided funds in return for seeds to grow in their gardens. His career was started by the sponsorship of A. K. Bulley of Ness, the owner of Bees Nursery. The success of the first two Forrest expeditions (1904-07 and 1910-11), paid for by Bulley and encouraged by Professor Isaac Bayley Balfour of Edinburgh, established Forrest's reputation. Thereafter, it was easy for him to obtain sponsorship for his next five expeditions between 1912 and 1932. Forrest's largest sponsor was J. C. Williams of Caerhays Castle in Cornwall, who was the sole sponsor of the third expedition (1912-15) and the largest sponsor of the fourth (1917-20). Today, on a walk around the Caerhays garden, one can see many camellias and rhododendrons introduced by Forrest. His last three expeditions had many sponsors who were owners of well-known gardens of Britain such as Borde Hill, Wakehurst Place, Duffryn Castle, Exbury and Bodnant, to name only a few.

Part of the collections from his expeditions went to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, from where his career was launched and from where he received support and encouragement from Bayley Balfour and his successor, William Wright-Smith. Forrest is best known for the many plants that he introduced into British horticulture, but he was also a meticulous collector of dried herbarium specimens. His 31,000 carefully prepared specimens, deposited at Edinburgh, are an invaluable resource for the classification and identification of Chinese plants. Today that institution both holds a remarkable collection of rhododendrons and is a partner in the publication of the English version of the Flora of China .

Forrest came nearest to death on his first expedition when Tsekou, the town where he was staying, was invaded by thousands of lamas on the warpath.

Although his death was reported, Forrest escaped after 21 days of barefoot flight, nine of them "being hunted like a mad dog on the hills". He cheated death but was desolate that he had lost 700 dried herbarium specimens, the seeds of 70 species, his camera and other possessions. Fortunately he survived to tell the story and, undeterred, continued his work on six subsequent expeditions. He encountered many other difficulties and adventures during the course of his work, but none compared with this experience.

Forrest was successful because of his complete dedication to the task, his single-mindedness and his desire to fulfil his promise to his sponsors. He was also able to establish excellent relationships with local people. He formed a team of local plant collectors, many of whom worked for him throughout his career and at one stage did some major collecting in his absence.

He learnt local languages and consequently made many friends with local people, consuls, customs officers and missionaries. He became cross only when something prevented him from achieving his goals to collect the plants he had promised to his sponsors. Plants in 191 genera were named after Forrest. He collected a large number of species that were new to science.

He also collected bird skins for Lord Rothschild of Tring as well as animals and insects for the London Natural History Museum. As a result, six birds, a dragonfly and several mammals also bear the name of Forrest. He died in China of a heart attack while on his seventh expedition.

This book ends with ten informative and useful appendices that provide background about Chinese places, a chronology of Forrest's life, his sponsors, his publications, many of the plants that he introduced into horticulture, the organisms named after him and the people honoured by names of Forrest plants. This included several he named for his long-suffering and supportive wife, Clementina Traill.

George Forrest: Plant Hunter is a fascinating and beautifully illustrated book that portrays the life of a dedicated plant collector and also gives the background for the origin of many of the plants that ornament our gardens today. It is a must for the library of any keen gardener.

Sir Ghillean Prance is scientific director, Eden Project, and was formerly director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

George Forrest: Plant Hunter

Author - Brenda McLean
Publisher - Antique Collectors' Club
Pages - 239
Price - £29.50
ISBN - 1 85149 461 8

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