An essay in an occasional series on outstanding Scots unjustly ignored
George Forrest was a great plant hunter, a true renaissance man of the early nineteenth century, with the near perfect name for a person whose whole career was hunting for new trees, shrubs, and plants. He sought them in remote, unexplored regions of the Far East. He brought back to Scotland thousands of botanical specimens and seeds, often at high risk to himself, and lent his name to hundreds of shrubs and plants, many of which we see everyday gracing our in municipal parks and in people’s gardens.
He was an Indiana Jones character, right down, or up, to his battered fedora hat. He carried a whip, a leather satchel, wore a leather jacket, and often rode a horse or mule. His is story of flower power.
There’s a glib claim film producer and director George Lucas modelled his adventurer on Forrest, but it’s highly unlikely Lucas ever heard of him. He’s more likely to have based his Indiana on Professor Challenger from another Scot, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, The Lost World. Lucas was reared on old movies, and anyhow, he’s on record as saying he based the character on Connery’s James Bond, but placed him decades earlier. All in all, safe to claim inspiration for the movie character of Indiana came from Scotland.If readers have never heard of George Forrest that’s probably because of Kew Gardens and the BBC. George Forrest worked at, and for, Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Had he worked at Kew you’d even know the name of his faithful dog, both of them mentioned in countless gardening programmes, BBC travel documentaries, and an exotic Scottish-Chinese drama series The Plant Huntsman would be raking in thousands worldwide.
Forrest is revered by botanists on both sides of the border, but competitive Kew Gardens is BBC’s first stop, and that institution has its own plant hunters to promote.
Forrest guarded his plant finds by staking out the ground, trip wiring the area, and camping near it toting a rifle. That’s how seriously he took his work, and guarded against thieves and loss of rare specimens. He was one physically tough explorer.
He was born in the Larbert north of Falkirk in 1873. Later his parents moved to Kilmarnock and opened a drapery store. The area proved a good training ground for Forrest’s natural inclination to explore. His father’s side had tough craftsmen and businessmen, his grandfather a blacksmith. On his mother’s side he had seafarers and adventurers. Exploring was in his blood.
Education was compulsory in Scotland until thirteen, but Forrest was so smart he stayed on until he was eighteen. He showed early interest in plants by collecting seeds from the Isle of Arran, but a probable need of cash stopped him attending university.
He took work in a pharmaceutical chemist which turned out to be great serendipity. Plant-derived drugs were the order of the day and new products always in demand. He soon got down to collecting plants and testing them for any efficacy against ailments.
Australia, here I come!
What happened next was sheer luck. A prosperous uncle left him a small inheritance and George used it to visit Australia. There he contacted relatives, tried his hand at sheep farming and then gold digging. Digging for gold was a rough, tough existence, but George gained the respect of older men for his resilience, and his cleverness in finding water to sustain him while camping under trees in the bush weeks on end. He found nuggets of gold but not his fortune. When he returned to Scotland he had blossomed – if that’s the right description – into an explorer of ‘true grit’, according to relatives. Australia had whet his appetite for more travel.
George settled in a cottage in Loanhead, outside Edinburgh, back then a small mining village. It was a typical wee Scottish parish , with a smiddy, a store, a greengrocer, a kirk, and a horse trough in the main street. For a young man keen on faraway place overseas Loanhead must have seemed like a boring hut at the end of the garden.
But Forrest was a man who arrived at the right time in history. China was opening up to foreign traders and tourists. Missionaries were the first out there. It was a place ready to be explored by plant hunters. George got to his botanical destiny by a series of welcome coincidences, and some luck.
His brother introduced him to a Glasgow natural history society for whom George was asked to collect plants. No sooner started, Forrest found a stone coffin and inside some human bones on a weekend’s walk at a reservoir near Loanhead.
He took the bones to the National Museum of Scotland. The secretary of the Antiquaries of Scotland, John Abercromby, was duly impressed by Forrest’s “appealing, open, friendly, uncomplicated, and enthusiastic manner” but above all “his eager curiosity for plant hunting.” In short measure he introduced him to Professor Isaac Bayley Balfour, Regius Keeper of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic gardens (RBGE).
“Dear Professor Balfour, Do you know of any society looking for a collector of botanical specimens abroad? I have recently come acquainted with a young fellow by the name of Forrest who lives out at Loanhead. He is collected specimens of plants in the three Lothians for a society in Glasgow. He would rather travel than stay at home. If you care to see him he looks the right sort of man. Yours sincerely, John Abercromby”
Balfour made Forrest a tentative offer, “It occurred to me you could take care of the dried plants in the Herbarium here. The lad who has left was paid ten shilling as week …” George leapt at the chance. The job offered security and training. The year was 1895.
Edinburgh, a place of enlightenment
Balfour was a dynamic leader, dedicated to the advancement of Edinburgh’s burgeoning botanic gardens. In that goal he was ably assisted by well qualified staff, all of whom came to be close loyal friends of George Forrest. The Herbarium was in Caledonian Hall. Dried, pressed plants were sent there from all over the world.
George had arrived at plant heaven, even if they were all dead specimens wrapped in blotting paper. He began work carefully mounting, labelling, and classifying them – learning Latin part of the experience! It was there he learned the vast diversity of the plant kingdom, tropical plants, Himalayan specimens, American plants, many known only to grow where they were discovered. New specimens fascinated him.
Luck and love
It was at the RBG that Forrest met his future wife, Clementina – a fine name for a female botanist. She was tall, slim, elegant, and like Forrest shared a sense of humour and a passion for flowers. Until that stage in his life its debateable George realised so few plants had ever come out of China for the rest of the world to marvel and admire. One day some seeds arrived from missionaries working in Yunnan province and Forrest was hooked. As luck would have it another instance of serendipity arrived at his feet.
Arthur Bulley was a Liverpool cotton broker keen on large gardens and, as was the fashion of the times, large collections of plants no one else had in their gardens. He had just bought a large area of land near the Welsh border, now known as Ness Gardens.
He wrote to Balfour at the RBGE asking if any of his staff would be keen to explore the Yunnan province of China where he had heard “Gentians, Paeonies, Anemones, and Iris grew in profusion.” Bulley wanted his collection of rare flora to rival the best. He didn’t want to waste money on slow postage to and from missionaries. “Send a man to collect plants!” Balfour wrote to him, “There is a man, George Forrest, here who is on the lookout for a billet such as you describe. He will write to you.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
A dangerous occupation
A lot of Forrest’s time in China collecting plants was not only arduous, but dangerous. There is something ironic about surviving journeys full of hardship and then setting up camp among amazing plants and shrubs in mountain valleys surrounding by beautiful exotic flowers, while French missionaries you stayed with only days before get murdered. The Yangtze and Mekong rivers harboured groups of brigands and robbers making travel in those regions highly risky.
At one point he was written off as dead, murdered together with some missionaries. Bulley his sponsor wrote to Balfour, ” I feel very sick. The vile feeling that this fine young fellow was working for pay for me, and did it because he was poor, and that he lost his life in the endeavour to earn some beastly money.”
Unlike Indiana Jones, Forrest didn’t have a convenient seaplane waiting on a river to rescue him, but escape he did, time after time, often dressed in Chinese attire as paddy field farmer. Though it played havoc with his health, managing to escape death saved by local villagers, “my ower guid luck”, he always continued his quest to bring back plants and seeds new to the western world. He never turned back or gave up. He knew discovery of rare plants would make his name if not his fortune, a strong motivation to plough on when encountering bad conditions.
“Wild looking fellows, they were, dressed as Tibetans, and armed with swords, guns and crossbows, and the hated poisoned arrows – death from the slightest scratch. All that after a terrible, trying journey … I lost a mule … it fell over a precipice breaking its back, the two cases it carried smashed to pieces. I carried some of the baggage myself.”
Yet only days later he was writing:
“I have witnessed several species of meconopsis, all surprisingly lovely, miles of rhododendrons, and acres of primulas, of which I counted over a dozen species in flower, many of which I have never seen before. Those mountains have, quite rightly in my opinion, been called the flower garden of the world.”
Though Forrest is best known for discovering many rhododendrons and azaleas, (one he named after his wife) the list of other plants he brought home is legion.
Among admiring colleagues Forrest was known for walking to his work at the Botanic gardens from Loanhead ever day, and standing at his desk. But in time, the privations of foot-slogging travel, climbing mountainous slopes, sleeping out under thunder storms, and bringing home packed mules of sees, transferred to sailing ships from India, took its toll on his health. He died suddenly while on a field trip in Yunnan province in 1932.
He was only 49 years of age when he died, but his legacy is phenomenal, and all around us. You won’t find a statue erected to George Forrest’s memory, but you might have some of the plants he discovered in your garden, or flowers in a bowl in your house.
When you delve into his plant hunting career you realise he put Indiana Jones to shame.