Gwen Bell, Seattle, Washington
Plant hunters were remarkable men.
George Forrest was such a man with many talents. It is now 103 years since he
was born in Falkirk, Scotland, and 44 years since he died in China. He left a
legacy to gardeners that can never be forgotten and, probably, can never again
It is unfortunate that George Forrest
did not write any books describing his seven journeys for if he had, they would
rival any fictional adventure. We must rely upon his letters, on articles
written for the "Gardeners" Chronicle" and to the lectures given, occasionally,
As a young man, George Forrest
finished school and secured his first job in a chemist's shop. This work did not
lead to a life's career, but he followed it long enough to acquire some
familiarity with medicines and simple surgery. The experience proved useful in
his future relationships with the Chinese, the Tibetans, and for his personal
health, for we know that he contracted blackwater fever, typhoid and malaria
during his journeys. It was the custom of his time for pharmacists to collect
their own herbs. This stimulated Forrest's first interest in plants and botany.
When a small legacy fell to him, he
decided to travel to Australia where he had relatives. Experience here served to
toughen and harden him for the rigorous pioneering ahead. Strenuous riding over
the sheep stations, hours spent with the felling axe and rugged work in the gold
fields all contributed to his endurance. "He was heard to tell of the discovery
of at least one gold nugget of substantial size."
In 1902, at age 29, he returned to
Scotland. Because he liked plants and still preferred outdoor life, he applied
to Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour, Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden at
Edinburgh, for employment. The only job open was, as he put it, "a meager post
in the Herbarium", indoor work. It would do, however, as a beginning. This
indoor work with dried specimens was a far cry from his rough labors in
Australia, so to keep in shape, he walked to and from work each day, a total of
twelve miles and he stood at his table each day from 9:00 to 5:00. Week-ends
were spent in hunting, fishing or hiking over nearby hills.
Reaching thirty years of age, George
Forrest was described as short and stocky, a deep-chested man who preferred
country life to the pleasures and worries of the city. His son tells us that he
was a "meticulous man who shaved daily, bathed daily, but if he could not have a
bath, had a very thorough wash - and that was no easy task in the wilds of
Yunnan and Tibet". Usually, he wore a tweed jacket, "rather tight-at-the-knees
breeches" and long stockings to match. Stout walking shoes or boots were
essential and he preferred bow ties, soft hats and the color green. "George
Forrest did not like plus fours. On the few occasions when long trousers were
required, it did not suit him at all."
Opportunity arrived for George
Forrest when he was 31. He was asked to undertake a botanical expedition to
western China, financed by Mr. A. K. Bulley. Mr. Bulley owned a beautiful garden
called "Ness" and a nursery firm called "Bees". He often wrote, requesting seeds
from companies conducting business in far-off lands. So many firms responded
that Mrs. Bulley was compelled to say, "The result was that Ness could boast the
best international collection of dandelions anywhere." Clearly, Mr. Bulley could
use the services of a plant collector.
In 1904, the richness and variety of
ornamental plants in Yunnan and Tibetan highlands was largely unsuspected,
although some exploration was underway farther to the east where Professor
Henry, French missionaries and Ernest Wilson were in the field. Forrest planned
to canvas the higher valleys, plateaus and mountains of southeast Tibet and
northwest Yunnan searching for seeds of new and unusual alpines.
George Forrest reached the Yunnan
Province in China by following old caravan routes through upper Burma. Late in
August, he arrived in Tali-fu, the largest and most centrally located city in
northern Yunnan. Tali-fu would be his base of operations.
Now picture a man, tough and honest,
but with no previous experience of collecting seeds and plants in the wild, with
no knowledge of non-English peoples, and with no associates or allies in this
remote land. He must be his own organizer, foreman and accountant, must work at
least eighteen hours a day estimating and acquiring equipment, arranging for
stores and medicines and plot a course from very indefinite maps and charts.
Quite a challenge!
One of his first decisions was to
become a "bulk" collector. Forrest visualized covering vast areas, which of
course, no man alone could hope to do while harvesting, searching, drying
material and keeping up the clerical work. He began training natives to help him
in the field, beginning with an interpreter and one or two Chinese. Later, he
had twenty adept native collectors working for him. This highly successful
training of native collectors was the key to his becoming the most prolific
introducer of seeds, plants and herbarium material of all time. From home base,
he would send out men in twos and threes to gather previously selected plants
and seeds. They would hustle the harvest back to base or send it back by
runners. Towards the end of his plant hunting years, he had collected 31,015
herbarium specimens alone, and his seeds were "measured by the pound, rather
than by the ounce".
"Running mostly north to south flow
four great rivers of east Asia, the eastern branch of the Irrawadi, the Salwin,
the Mekong and the Yangtze Rivers squeezed into an area one hundred miles wide,
higher ranges forming watersheds, deep valleys through which rivers flow.
Difficult communications. Peculiar, as in many cases, upper valleys above 12,000
feet are comparatively undulating and have easy access once they reached
sufficient altitude. Lower gorges often had precipitous sides." Forrest covered
50,000 square miles of territory such as this.
His natural ability to learn fair
Chinese and the hill dialects allowed him to have direct communication with his
men and with the hill people.
Forrest always carried a cumbersome old-fashioned camera and took great numbers
of photos. "As you know," he wrote, "I am not the most patient of individuals.
For the cultivation of patience, I recommend the photographing of alpines in
The borders of Yunnan and Tibet were
never stable and there was constant strife. Letters home announced his escape
from assassins. "When the British shocked the Tibetans by invading Lhasa, and
the Chinese moved in after, trying to establish themselves on Tibetan territory,
the Lamas rebelled. They murdered Chinese and killed missionaries, settling old
jealousies. Forrest's group was camped at a mission station in the year 1905, as
guests of two aged priests. On July 19, word came that the Lamas were massing to
attack the helpless mission. Under a rising moon, the two priests, their small
band of native Christians, their mules and Forrest's party set out toward
safety. The Mekong River was in flood on their left and on their right towered
the steep Mekong-Salwin Range. In the morning, villagers informed them that the
enemy had cut off their retreat to the south and was closing rapidly. Late
afternoon, a large party of armed men appeared on the track, running Indian
file. Forrest gave the alarm and followers scattered abruptly in all directions.
One of the priests was riddled by poisoned arrows, then jumped upon by Tibetans
wielding two-handed swords. The little band was picked off one by one, or
captured. Seeing that all was lost, Forrest fled eastward, scrambling over
slippery logs. Later, returning to the track he rounded a sharp turn and there
saw some of the hostile band running toward him. He could have used his guns, he
was an excellent shot, but he knew that it would only signal those behind to the
target, so he leaped desperately from the path, rolling down the steep, rocky
slopes some two hundred yards, eventually finding sanctuary near a huge boulder
by the river. For eight days, he struggled southward, traveling mostly at night,
avoiding watch fires and Tibetan mastiffs. Once he was confronted by a group of
his pursuers and wearily decided to make a last stand, or as a friend put it, to
sell his life dearly. He raised his rifle to his shoulder, when suddenly his
attention was attracted by what appeared to be the figure of Father Dubernard on
a far hillside waving him farther downstream. He moved downstream and escaped
once more. Later, he learned that Father Dubernard had been slaughtered three
days before the vision!
On the ninth day, he found a friendly
village. People there fed him, disguised him and guided him over the ridges,
sometimes ascending to the snow fields at 17,000 and 18,000 feet, wading through
miles and miles of rhododendrons and primulas."
Forrest was welcomed back in Tali-fu
as one returned from the dead, and indeed, he had been reported dead three weeks
earlier. Each of the seven journeys held tense, exciting moments.
During that eventful journey from
1904 through 1906, George Forrest kept letters moving from Yunnan to Scotland
whenever possible to a young woman who had worked with him at the Herbarium.
Following his return in 1907, he and Clementina Traill were married. Does the
name Clementina recall to you R. clementinae, and the name Traill,
R. traillianum? The eldest of three sons relates that between treks, Forrest
loved to read "westerns". He owned hundreds of these books, and the proprietor
of the bookshop was "somewhat shocked at Mr. Forrest's taste in literature".
His third hunt was sponsored by J. C.
Williams of Caerhayes and letters were exchanged that were like running
conversations, some thirty pages long. This expedition produced a startling
observation for that time. He wrote, "The rhododendron authorities at home talk
about the impossibility of growing rhododendrons on limestone. I wish I had them
here just now! to see
R. chartophyllum and it's form, praecox, miles (no exaggeration) of
bloom and every plant on pure limestone, many growing on the bare rock . . .
this applies to almost all the species on the range. My experience is that
plants growing in a limestone soil are more given to sporting than others. The
Li-Chiang Range is purely and simply a solid block of limestone from end to end.
He saw species there of R. neriiflorum, floccigerum,
sanguineum, bullatum, ciliicalyx, crassum and
yunnanense, along with dwarfer varieties of campylogynum,
trichocladum and intricatum. This account confirmed Wilson's
observation about rhododendrons growing on limestone.
R. forrestii repens commemorates George Forrest
| Forest found R.
diaprepes at 10,000 feet
in southwestern Yunnan in 1913
Photo by Cecil Smith
R. neriiflorum was introduced
by Forrest in 1906
Growing in open woodland, R. fulvum
with its cinnamon-colored indumentum
was discovered by Forrest in 1012
Photo by Cecil Smith
Once again he wrote, "Before going
further, I wish to point out that above a certain altitude in this region of the
Yunnan Province, the genus rhododendron is the dominant feature in the scheme of
vegetation." It is no wonder that he collected more rhododendrons than any other
plant, with primulas second. He contributed to thirty out of forty-three
rhododendron series. The series to which he did not contribute are made up of
the Himalayan, European and American species.
Forrest stressed that "nearly all
rhododendrons in their natural environment are social plants. Very few are found
as isolated plants." Two exceptions were R. griersonianum and
spinuliferum. He found R. campylogynum on every one of his seven
journeys. He described R. lacteum with very large bright yellow flowers
and an unknown blue rhododendron, "a real blue", as he put it. The farther north
he traveled the more rhododendrons he found. Dwarf rhododendrons covered acres
and square miles. Eventually, he worked out a theory that somewhere farther to
the north lay a protected valley that was the home, the Garden of Eden of the
rhododendron genus. As far as we know he never reached such a valley, if,
indeed, such a place existed.
Plant collecting overshadowed his
other considerable talents as a geologist and as an observer and collector of
bird, animal and insect life. One of his letters was certainly expressive.
"Animal and bird life along the upper Salwin is conspicuous by its absence - an
important matter for the traveler, who cannot count on replenishing his larder
with game. On the other hand, the river banks at a low altitude, and where
wholly sheltered from the north winds, have an almost tropical climate and
vegetable and insect life is both vigorous and troublesome. Creatures with
inconveniently long legs plunge suddenly into one's soup, great caterpillars in
splendid but poisonous uniforms of long and gaily colored hairs arrive in one's
blankets with the businesslike air of the guest who means to stay. Ladybirds and
other specimens of coleoptera drop off the jungle down one's neck, whilst other
undesirables insert themselves under one's nether garments. The light in the
tent attracts a perfect army of creatures which creep, buzz, crawl or sting."
There is more, but I'm sure you get the picture.
It was an event when Forrest looked
upon R. giganteum for the first time. "One specimen stood seventy-nine
feet tall and spread its branches forty feet. Measured at five feet above the
ground, its girth was seven feet, nine inches. He felled one of these giants and
sent a cross section back to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. There it
shows off its two hundred and eighty annual growth rings.
It is interesting that J. C. Williams
paid Forrest a bonus for each new specie collected. It was his good luck that
almost all species of that day were thought new and were not yet being merged by
the botanists. We know that he was paid for, at least, three hundred nine
un-described new rhododendrons, while he totaled some 5,375 different plant
George Forrest did not like other collectors infringing upon his assumed
territory. He refused to collaborate with Farrer, Ward or Rock when they were
exploring and collecting nearby, and Farrer complained about the encroachment of
In mid-January of 1932, word reached
Scotland that Mr. Forrest was dead. Most of his work had been completed and he
was almost ready for his return home. He had gone out on the hills to hunt.
Feeling ill suddenly, he called to his men for help, but it was too late. In two
minutes, heart failure had ended his adventures forever. One account states that
the people there honored him with a wreathe of white roses, the mourning color
of China and another account describes the tall cross of red rhododendrons
placed upon his grave.
So, George Forrest remains in that
land that he pictured for us like this: "in the morning the sun, as it touches
the top of the Mekong Divide, sends wide shafts of turquoise light down the side
gullies to the river, which seems to be transformed into silver. The pines along
the top of the ridges stand out as if limed by the hand of a Japanese artist. In
the evening all the side slopes of the Mekong side are flooded with red and
orange lights, which defy photography and would be the despair of a Turner. The
traveler whose fortune it has been to explore the great rivers of this, our
north-east Indian frontier will admit that the Salwin, while it is inhospitable,
difficult and barbarous, far exceeds in natural beauty all the valleys of the
sister rivers, the Yangtze, the Mekong or the Irrawadi.'"
George Forrest was a remarkable man!
"George Forrest, V. M. H. " - Scottish Rock Garden Club
"Plant Hunting in China" - E. H. M. Cox
"Journeys & Plant Introductions of George Forest, V. M. H - Royal Horticultural