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George Forrest (1873 - 1932)

George Forrest with one of his favourite dogs circa 1910's

George Forrest was a remarkably productive plant collector and explorer, who made seven major expeditions and introduced hundreds of species to western cultivation, but we are denied his own accounting of how this was done, as he never found the time to write his story down. He had always said that he intended to save that task for his retirement, but unfortunately, that was not to be.

Born in Falkirk, Scotland on March 13th 1873, George Forrest was educated at Kilmarnock Academy and was later Apprenticed to a local chemist, where he learned about the medicinal properties and uses of many different plants, and also learned about the drying and preserving of herbarium specimens.

With a modest inheritance he was able to seek adventure further afield, so he headed for Australia at the height of the gold rush of 1891. He remained in Australia for over ten years, panning for gold and thriving in the harsh conditions. He returned to Britain via the African cape in 1902.

In 1903, after his return, he was employed by Sir Isaac Balfour as a clerk in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Balfour was impressed by Forrest's resourcefulness, determination and character and recommended him to A. K. Bulley, who was looking to sponsor an expedition to western China. This was the sort of challenge that the rugged Scot had always wanted, and he was soon on his way.

His first expedition to China's Yunnan province was both productive and horrific. He arrived at the town of Talifu (Dali) in August of 1904 where he set up his base of operations and took the time to know the people and made an effort to learn their language. His respect for the local people and their culture was genuine, and he would later demonstrate this in practical terms by paying for, out of his own pocket, the inoculation of thousands of locals against smallpox, a disease that was still ravaging millions of people throughout the world at the time.

Rhododendron sinogrande

By the summer of 1905 he was ready to mount his first expedition to the northwest corner of Yunnan near the border with Tibet. He and his team of 17 local collectors stayed briefly at the French mission under Père Dubernard in the small town of Tzekou. The region was rich with unknown species of all descriptions. Forrest and his team collected numerous plants, herbarium specimens and seeds. In the sanctuary of the rhododendron forests, so rich in variety of floraand fauna, the group was unaware of the turmoil that was to meet them on their return to the mission, and that only one would survive.

Politics are ugly at the best of times, and the politics of war are all the more disturbing. The events that led to the lamas (warrior priests) torturing and killing any foreigners or local people who had, or were perceived to have had, contact with foreigners, are complex and not within the scope of this article. However, the result was that George Forrest barely escaped with his life, travelling by night and hiding by day, enduring near starvation while dodging hunting parties scouring the countryside for victims.

The local indigenous people, the Lissu, saved Forrest by giving him shelter, then helped to spirit him out of the region by disguising him as a Tibetan. The escape was an arduous one, over high mountain passes and down through dense jungle, but he was eventually able to make it back to the relative safety of Talifu.

Primula bulleyana and Primula beesiana 
and their natural hybridsGiving himself little time for recovery he joined his friend George Littton, from the British Consulate, as he traveled to Tengyueh then up to the Salween district to continue collecting. They spent two months in the wilderness, travelling from tropical microclimates to high mountain ridges in their search. They endured the jungles and the myriad insects that swarmed around them as they worked, poisonous plants, sheer cliffs and rickety bridges across deep gorges, all to find more and better plants. Soon after their return, just after the New Year, Litton was struck down with malaria and died.

This still was not enough to stop Forrest as he continued with his collecting, and with the training of new local assistants. In March he took his team into the Likiang region, only to develop malaria himself, finally forcing him to abandon his expedition and return to Talifu to recover. His team of dedicated collectors continued their work, however, and he was able to return to Britain in late 1906 with a prodigious load of materials, including hundreds of pounds of seeds, thousands of roots, tubers and plants, along with his herbarium specimens.

Despite the difficulties he had faced, George Forrest had grown to love the region and the people of Yunnan, and would return six more times on different expeditions, ranging as far afield as upper Burma, eastern Tibet and Sichuan province. And although he never published a Flora his contributions to the study of natural history in western China were immense. He discovered over 1200 plants species new to science, as well as many birds and mammals, as he was a well-rounded naturalist with an interest in all aspects of the region.

He was honoured with the Royal Horticultural Society's Victoria Medal of Honour in 1921, and the Veitch Memorial Medal in 1927, and was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1924.

He had told his friends that his last expedition, mounted in 1930, was to finish all the work he had begun, to find all the plants he had missed. This trip proved to be his most productive of all, accomplishing virtually all his goals, and finding still more species besides. In 1932, when the bulk of his work was done, he collapsed and died of massive heart failure just outside of the town of Tengyueh.

The Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh

Some of the plants George Forrest introduced;
Gentiana sino-ornata, Camellia saluenensis, Clematis chrysocoma, Jasminum polyanthum, Pleione forrestii, Pieris forrestii, Mahonia lomariifolia, Iris forrestii, Acer forrestii, numerous buddleias, anemones, asters, deutzias, conifers, berberis, alliums and cotoneasters. Also Rhododendron forrestii, R. sinogrande, R. repens, R. griersonianum, R. intricatum and R. giganteum, as well as more than 50 species of primula such as Primula malacoides, P. bulleyana, P. nutans, P. vialii and P. spicata.


The life of George Forrest - Scotland 's Indiana Jones of the plant world, - will be celebrated in a forthcoming book and an exhibition at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh [RBGE] . In the centenary year of his first expedition to China , the exhibition, which is on in RBGE's Exhibition Hall from 3 April until 27 June 2004, will include the first-ever public showing of recently discovered film footage shot by Forrest. In early May, it will be followed by the launch of most comprehensive book on Forrest to date. Written by Brenda McLean and entitled George Forrest, Plant Hunter , the book provides a detailed history of his life and includes rare access to family archives as well as extensive material provided by RBGE.
... Press Release

Original black and white photographs of George Forrest © Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Scotland, UK


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