Remembering George Forrest, the Falkirk Bairn with his foot planted in history

George Forrest trekked China and the Himalayas to collect new plants to introduce in Britain. Picture: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
George Forrest trekked China and the Himalayas to collect new plants to introduce in Britain. Picture: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Indiana Jones and plants aren’t things you’d necessarily associate with each other, but when it comes to a famous Falkirk adventurer, it’s a different story.

The revered cinema character made famous by Hollywood actor Harrison Ford was a tough, ruggedly handsome explorer searching for precious artefacts in the early 1900s.

It’s around this same era that Bairn George Forrest was making his name in the dangerous world of horticulture. Yes, you read correctly, I did use the adjective ‘dangerous’ when talking about plants and flowers.

Back in those days the stuff Mr Forrest – an apt name don’t you think – was up to was treacherous and life-threatening and many people attached to his expeditions died during the course, or as a result of, his journeys into deepest, darkest China and the Himalayas – rugged and perilous areas.

His endeavours, which will never be achieved again, were summed up by Dr H.R. Fletcher, Regius Keeper, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1952.

He said of his conquests: “To have lived down these years of high endeavour when Forrest stood pre-eminent among plant hunters, handling his beautiful material either in the herbarium or in the garden, must have been a rare privilege, a privilege the like of which is unlikely to be given to man again.”

Forrest’s first expedition in the Yunnan province China in 1904, near Tibet, was fraught with danger and he only managed to leave the country by the skin of his teeth.

While Forrest and his 17-strong team were out collecting new specimens of plants in rhododendron forests to introduce them to western civilisations, the French mission they had stayed at was ransacked by warrior priests (lamas) because at that time politics proclaimed that anyone who came into contact with foreigners, and foreign people themselves, would be killed and/or tortured. Only one survived.

Forrest was forced to flee on his own and survive in the wild until being saved by an indigenous tribe (the Lissu) before he escaped the region disguised as a Tibetan.

This escapade did not discourage him from his mission of finding new plants, however, and he bravely returned to the regions a further six times.

After a short recovery period Forrest and a friend from the British Consulate, George Litton, travelled back to Tengyueh and the Salween district to continue their collecting pursuits spending two months in the wilderness traversing through tropical micro-climates and high mountain ridges. The terrain took them through jungles swarming with insects, poisonous plants, sheer cliffs and deep gorges.

When they returned to the UK Litton died of malaria. Forrest himself contracted the disease months afterwards on another expedition in the Likiang region, but fortunately survived.

Forrest was born in Falkirk on March 13, 1873 and lived at 32 Grahams Road. He was the last of 13 children, three had died in infancy while another sibling was stillborn.

His grandparents were from Larbert and both his parents were baptised in Larbert Parish Church.

He moved to Kilmarnock when he was 12 and it was here he learned about the medicinal properties and uses of plants as a chemist’s apprentice.

Adventure was never far from his mind though and after inheriting some money set out for Australia in 1891 to make his fortune in the gold rush.

He stayed there for 10 years before heading back to Britain and becoming a clerk in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh under Sir Isaac Balfour.

Sir Balfour, greatly impressed by Forrest’s character, resourcefulness and determination, recommended him for a Chinese expedition that was being sponsored by AK Bulley and his adventures began.

Bulley’s advert in the ‘Gardeners’ Chronicle’ on April 30, 1904 read: “WANTED, a YOUNG MAN well up in Hardy Plants, to go out to the East and Collect. – Box 15, G.P.O., Liverpool”.

During the course of his collecting Forrest gathered “mule-loads of seeds and over 31,000 herbarium specimens. He introduced hundreds of new of new plants to cultivation and many were named after him.” (Source: George Forrest, Plant Hunter by Brenda McLean).

His legacy will live on in this country forever. He discovered more than 1200 plants species including Iris forrestii, Acer forrestii, Camellia saluenensis and Jasminum polyanthum and, of course, the rhododendron, as well as a host of birds and mammals.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh archivist Leonie Paterson, who looks after his historic letters and photographs, paid an emotional tribute to a true hero.

She said: “George Forrest was one of the first Westerners to go as far north up the Salween river as you can get. “There weren’t many survivors from his first expedition but he went back six times to carry out his work.

“He found plants that wouldn’t be possible to find today because you can’t access some of the areas he explored. His photographs also give us a view of China that is now long gone, this record is of China from that point of view, and that is important.

“His legacy does live on, however. We have a station on one of the mountains he was based on to preserve, and in honour of, some of his work. He must have had remarkable people management skills for these expeditions.

“Sadly, he died before he was able to retire. We lost him but not his work. I haven’t done it for a while but it is a joy to read his letters.”


1. George Forrest has been honoured by the Royal Horticultural Society with the Victoria Medal of Honour (1921), the Veitch Memorial Medal (1927) and is a fellow of the Linnean Society.

2. He died near the town of Tengyueh in China in 1932 of heart failure.

3. His expedition in 1930, which he told friends would be his last, was his most productive.

4. The Gentiana georgei was discovered by Forrest on his first expedition. Professor Diels named the flower in his honour.

5. On his early trips he wrote to family complaining that he did not have any privacy, even showering in front of crowds of people, such was the curiosity that surrounded them in remote Tibet.

6. The autumn gentian, Gentiana sino-ornata, is one of Forrest’s best known discoveries. It is adopted by Ness Botanic Gardens as its logo.

7. Forrest’s patron, A.K. Bulley considered the Androsace bulleyana plant as “one of the very finest of Forrest’s things”.

8. Primula forrestii (pictured right) was introduced in the western world in 1909 to great acclaim.