- George Forrest (1873-1932)
Gardens in Britain owe a huge debt to George Forrest as he was responsible for bringing back over 30,000 specimens of 10,000 plants from China over a period of 17 years, at the start of the 20th century.
He was born in Falkirk and after a spell in Australia (where he tried unsuccessfully to make his fortune as a sheep farmer and gold prospector) returned to Scotland and was employed by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. In 1904 he was sent to the Yunnan province of Western China. This first trip could have been his last as all the other members of the expedition were killed by Tibetan monks. George was lucky to escape with nothing worse than two arrows through his hat. In order to evade his pursuers he had to wade for miles along mountain streams until he reached some local Chinese peasants who helped him escape. Despite his brush with death, he hung on to his plant samples and still had them when he got back to Scotland in 1907.
Undeterred by his experiences, Forrest returned to China and the Himalayas on six more expeditions. While on these trips he often dressed as a local Chinese and got on well with them. They helped him in his quest for plants but even so, he had some more dangerous adventures in remote areas. In recent years he has sometimes been called the "Indiana Jones of the plant world".
During these expeditions, he gathered plant species, seeds and a magnificent collection of photographs. The plants which he introduced into Britain included 300 new species of rhododendron (which was unknown in Britain until his discovery), azaleas, primulas, gentians, conifers, orchids, magnolias, saxifrages and pieris - Pieris Forestii adds a splash of colour to shady corners of many gardens.
He died of a heart attack in 1932, while on an expedition in China. While his surname forms part of the botanical names of many plants, he is not well known outside of the world of botany. However, a new book on his life is being written - and a plaque erected outside his former home at 14 Linden Place, Loanhead. The Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh also planning to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his first expedition in 2004.
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