Celebrating 150 years since the birth of this gifted and intrepid explorer who brought back some of our most exquisite garden flowers


On 30th April 1904, a short advertisement appeared in the Situations Vacant column of The Gardeners’ Chronicle.  It said:  ’WANTED, a YOUNG MAN well up in Hardy Plants, to go out to the East and Collect.  Box 15, G.P.O., Liverpool.’

The successful applicant was George Forrest.  A life of adventure was what he longed for, and he certainly got it.  A little over a year later he was running for his life in the unmapped mountain regions of south-west China, hunted by would-be murderers who knew the terrain much better than he did.  Eye witnesses reported him dead, and the British Consul in Yunnan sent a telegram of condolence to his family.  But they were mistaken.  Not for nothing has George Forrest been called ‘the Indiana Jones of plant collectors.’


George Forrest


Born in Falkirk in 1873, George Forrest was the son of a draper.  His family was respectable and quietly religious;  not rich, but self-sufficient.  As a young man, coming into a small inheritance from an uncle, Forrest had bought a passage to Australia and spent a year in the outback, prospecting for gold and developing a taste for exploration.  Then, returning to Scotland, he joined a natural history society in Glasgow and began to collect plant specimens.  A dream of somehow combining these two passions started to evolve in his head.


What Forrest needed was a key to open the right doors, and he found it while fishing in the Gladhouse Reservoir.  Half-buried in one of its banks he discovered a cist containing ancient human bones, which he took to the Museum of National Antiquities in Edinburgh.  Here, he made the acquaintance of John Abercromby, Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  Impressed with Forrest’s knowledge and enthusiasm, Abercromby wrote to Professor Isaac Bayley Balfour, Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh:   ‘Do you know of any person or society that wants a collector to collect for them abroad any kind of botanical specimens?’

Professor Isaac Bayley Balfour


At the time, Balfour knew of no such person, but he offered Forrest a job cataloguing dried specimens in the Herbarium.  Although the work was poorly paid, Forrest accepted eagerly, and seven months later an opportunity came along that changed his life.  Arthur Kilpin Bulley, a wealthy Liverpool cotton broker with an obsession for rare plants, was looking for a man who would go to the largely unexplored mountains of Yunnan in south-west China and bring back seeds of the exquisite species that were reputed to grow there. 


Bulley wasn’t just fuelling a personal passion:  he had an eye for business.  Thousands of amateur horticulturists were desperate to grow the latest exotic plants in their gardens, and they were willing to pay excellent money for them.  Bulley had just established Ness Gardens on the Wirral peninsula, where he planned to supply this lucrative market with the choicest new arrivals.


When Bulley placed his advertisement for a ‘young man well up in hardy plants’, he also wrote to Balfour directly, asking him to recommend suitable candidates.  Balfour didn’t hesitate to tell him about Forrest.  ‘He is a strongly built fellow,’ he replied, ‘and seems to me to be of the right grit for a collector.’  Bulley needed no more convincing.  Forrest was hired, and a few weeks later a ship was carrying him towards China.


Forrest had taken a fond farewell, not just of his parents, but of a young woman named Clementina Traill, who worked alongside him in the Herbarium.  Despite the strong disapproval of her mother, Clementina and Forrest had become engaged.  It would be three years before they saw each other again. 


Reaching Yunnan after an arduous mountain trek in monsoon season, Forrest’s first excursion was in the company of George Litton, the British Consul in Tengyueh.  They crossed the Salween and Mekong rivers, which run parallel after flowing down from the Tibetan plateau.  In the narrow Mekong gorge, the makeshift ‘road’ consisted of rows of logs resting on brackets hammered into the cliff face, many hundreds of feet above the river.  It wasn’t the place to develop a fear of heights.  Forrest also experienced the debatable thrill of zipping across a river in a leather sling suspended from a rope bridge.  ‘The speed at first is tremendous,’ he wrote, ‘…over in a very few seconds, about 50-70 feet above the river.’


Primula vialii, originally named Primula littoniana after George Litton


Forrest was excited by the fact that the plateau of Chungtien (Zhongdian) was blank on the map, and he and Litton were the first Europeans to cross it.  They were both spellbound by what they saw.  It was early autumn, and entire pastures were carpeted with red euphorbia and brilliant blue gentians.  At a height of about 15,000 feet, Forrest collected specimens of Gentiana sino-ornata;  slightly lower down, he found another species which he named Gentiana trailliana in honour of Clementina.  In a letter to his mother, he wrote:  ‘I have never seen any place to equal it for flowers in all my travels.’


Gentiana sino-ornata


Lodging for a few days in a French mission-station at Tsekou, Forrest was fascinated to see the botanical specimens that the missionaries had collected from the surrounding hills.  The season was late, and he decided to return in the spring.  Meanwhile, his first trek had been a huge success.  When he returned to Tengyueh, he carried with him a box of seeds from 78 different species to send to Bulley, and about 380 dried specimens for Balfour’s Herbarium. 


It was an achievement to be proud of, but Forrest still felt anxious.  He wanted to prove himself as a plant collector, both to his sponsor and to Clementina’s family.  He began planning another trek, this time on his own, which would take him back to the mission-station and into a whole lot of trouble.

 Forrest on his pony, c.1905 (image courtesy Caerhays Estate)


When Forrest set out for Tsekou in April 1905, his health was already suffering, possibly as a result of exhaustion.  The snow on the mountain passes was so deep that one of his mules fell over a precipice, and his party of hired porters refused to go any further.  At the mission-station, he heard ominous news:  Tibetan lamas were rebelling against Chinese and European presence in their region, and were murdering foreigners indiscriminately, hunting them down and killing them with poison-tipped arrows.  Unwittingly, Forrest had arrived in the middle of hostilities that would later be known as the Batang Uprising.


Ignoring the warning signs, Forrest spent weeks collecting plants for Balfour and Bulley, and employed two men to do the same.   He was exhilarated at finding beautiful rhododendrons, azaleas, lilies and primulas, and was willing to endure all kinds of rigours to reach them.  He wrote:  ‘For three nights I slept in a bog with split pine boards for my bed, my clothes for blankets and a log for a pillow.’  In effect, Forrest was trying to brazen it out, knowing that sooner or later the Tibetan rebels would cross his path.  He planned to return to Scotland in May or June the following year, but wrote home:  ‘…you know “the plans o’ mice and men” and there is no knowing how or by what this may be changed.’


How right he was.  One morning in July, Forrest was woken by the French missionaries who told him that armed rebels were approaching.  Together they fled into the hills, but although Forrest urged the priests to hurry, they insisted on stopping to make cups of tea.  Looking back to see a plume of smoke, Forrest realised that the building had been set ablaze.  He knew that the rebels would be pursuing them.  The priests had given up hope.  Forrest had no choice but to continue without them. 


Now, both day and night, he was a hunted man.  His pursuers were relentless, and could move quickly and silently over the rough terrain.  They were tracking his footprints, so he took off his boots and buried them, waded for a mile up a river and continued barefoot.  He carried a rifle and was ready to use it, but his opponents were too many.  Rounding a sharp bend at the end of a valley, he came face-to-face with a party of armed men.  Knowing he was outnumbered, Forrest fled back round the bend and leaped into a patch of scrub beside the path.  Crouching and holding his breath, he heard them rush past.  He stayed there until it got dark, and continued his journey by moonlight.


For a period of nine days Forrest had nothing to eat, except for two dozen ears of wheat and a handful of parched peas that he had found dropped by the wayside.  Entering a small village, he begged for food and collapsed with exhaustion, with no choice but to trust that he was among friendly people.  He was offered a meal, and later two villagers guided him over a high mountain pass, where ice and rough rocks tore his feet to shreds.  Even so, he was somehow able to marvel at the profusion of primulas and rhododendrons, feeling as if he was in ‘the flower garden of the world.’ 


Rhododendron forrestii, one of many species named after George Forrest


At last, by a miracle, Forrest reached the bank of the Mekong River in Chinese-controlled territory.  Here, sympathetic Chinese officials brought him food and warm blankets.  There was still a danger that he might be discovered, so he was given traditional clothes by way of disguise, and allowed his beard to be shaved off.   Then he was escorted to the mission-station at Tali, where he was greeted as someone returning from the dead.  He had been presumed killed many days before, because people claiming to be eye-witnesses had reported his murder.  Luckily, because he urgently needed medical treatment, this was the only mission-station in north-west Yunnan with a doctor and a dispensary.  


While Forrest knew how fortunate he was to be alive, he deeply regretted having to abandon his seeds and specimens.  He wrote: ’I lost nearly all the results of a whole season’s work, a collection of most valuable plants numbering fully 2,000 species, seeds of 80 species, and 100 photographic negatives.  It is difficult to estimate the value of such a loss…’  Meanwhile, back in Scotland, having received the awful news that he had been killed, Forrest’s family and Clementina were overwhelmed with relief to learn that he was still alive.


Forrest after his escape (image from The Gardeners’ Chronicle)


Forrest did eventually come home, and he and Clementina were married at Rosslyn Chapel on 15th July 1907.   He returned to Yunnan on six further occasions, bringing back a dazzling wealth of plant species from flamboyant rhododendrons, peonies and magnolias to the tiniest, jewel-like androsaces and primulas.  Forrest was respected for the excellent standard of his preparation and packing of seeds, ensuring that when they reached Britain they had a very high chance of germination.  Isaac Bayley Balfour could not speak highly enough of him.  ‘He is undoubtedly the prince of collectors,’ he wrote.  ‘No one approaches him, alike for the excellence of the specimens, proper selection of forms, and notes upon habitat…’ 


From Forrest’s third expedition onwards, he moved away from Arthur Kilpin Bulley and accepted the support of other sponsors, of whom one of the most prominent was J C Williams of Caerhays Castle in Cornwall.  Forrest travelled down to meet Williams in person, and the two men found they had much in common, including a love of fishing and a strong preference for the countryside over city life.  A dedicated plantsman himself, Williams held Forrest in the greatest regard, and the result of their long collaboration can still be seen in the extraordinarily beautiful gardens at Caerhays Castle, as well as in the many glorious species and hybrids, first raised at Caerhays, that flourish in gardens all over the world.


Forrest’s plant cases destined for Caerhays Castle (image courtesy Caerhays Estate)


Forrest received numerous awards, including the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honour and the Veitch Memorial Medal, and he was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society.  In addition, dozens of his introduced species won RHS Awards of Garden Merit.  In his book, Woodland Gardening (2018), plantsman Kenneth Cox writes:  ‘If there was a ranking system for the Sino-Himalayan plant-hunters, the number one spot would probably go to George Forrest, as he had more impact on the woodland garden than any other single individual.  In a 30-year plant-hunting career, Forrest and his team of trained collectors amassed 31,015 specimens, made 5,300 rhododendron collections and introduced hundreds of plant species for the first time…’


Camellia saluenensis (image courtesy Caerhays Estate)


Although Forrest kept journals and contributed articles to periodicals such as The Gardeners’ Chronicle, he never wrote a book about his adventures;  it is difficult to see how he would have had the time.  However, as a public speaker he was extremely popular.  After a talk which Forrest gave for RSGS in 1928, the Scottish Geographical Magazine reported:  ‘A gifted lecturer, he took his audience with him, revealing not only the floral wonders but a wealth of observation of the men and animals of the areas visited.  The journey was illustrated not only by lucid description, but by photographic record, often in colour.’ 





With grateful thanks to Caerhays Estate for allowing us to include some photographs from their collection


Quotes and reference:  


Brenda McLean, ‘George Forrest: Plant Hunter’ (2004)

Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, which holds many of Forrest’s specimens, letters and other ephemera https://stories.rbge.org.uk/archives/tag/george-forrest

George Forrest, ‘The Perils of Plant Collecting’ from The Gardeners’ Chronicle (1910)

Caerhays Castle https://visit.caerhays.co.uk/the-estate/the-gardens/garden-history/#

Kenneth Cox, ‘Woodland Gardening’ (2018)

Scottish Geographical Magazine (1932):  Obituary of George Forrest