March 18, 2012: Of the not-so-boring botanists, none is less boring or more not so boring, in my humble opinion, than the Scottish plant explorer, George Forrest. Called the Indiana Jones of Scotland, he out-Indiana-ed the movie character, and besides what kind of name is “Indiana”? I mean just how exciting and adventuresome is the Hoosier state, really?

George Forrest was born in Scotland in 1873. He was one of a handful of plant hunters that participated in the golden age of the professional plant hunter.

There are thousands of species of plants to be found in gardens across North America and Europe that came from China. Southwest China has a climate not so dissimilar to the UK and temperate North America (and in particular the Pacific Northwest). Until 1860, China was closed to foreigners . As the interior of China began opening up to western missionaries and diplomats , they began discovering and shipping home plants unknown to western gardens. Long before there were Chinese electronics or running shoes in our homes, there were Chinese plants in our gardens. There’s an excellent chance that there’s a rhododendron, azalea or primula in your garden right now that’s Chinese in origin. There are over 900 species of rhododendrons that originate in the Far East, as opposed to 4 from Europe and 27 from North America.

From 1860 to around 1890, most of the plant collection and introductions were done by amateurs – missionaries, diplomats, doctors , and the like. In the 1890’s, a professional breed of plant collector, the commercial plant hunter, arrived in China. These were botanists in the paid employ of arboreta, commercial nurseries, and wealthy patrons and were sent into the remotest areas of the Far East to discover and return with new plants. The wildest, remotest and most dangerous of these areas was southwestern China, where it borders Tibet , Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam – the province of Yunnan.

After spending 10 years as a miner in the Australian gold rush, George Forrest was employed by a wealthy English cotton merchant to lead a plant hunting expedition to the wilderness border of Yunnan and Tibet. In 1904, he arrived at the town of Talifu in Yunnan and spent the next 6 months organizing the expedition and learning the language and customs of the native people. He had a genuine respect of the people of the region, going so far as inoculating thousands of people out of his own pocket when a smallpox epidemic broke out.

The next year, Forrest lead his expedition further into the mountains near the Tibet border. I can tell you from personal experience (of watching a YouTube), these mountains aren’t for creampuffs. Narrow, deep gorges; steep, thickety mountain slopes and extremes in weather that range from permanent ice fields to tropical monsoons that make trekking through this region an arduous task. It also makes this area one of the greatest centers of plant diversity on the planet. Of the 30,000 species of higher plants found throughout China, 17,000 exist in Yunnan of which 2500 are endemic to the province. For a commercial plant hunter , that makes a gold mine.

Gold has its hazards in mining and plant gold, in this instance, had an army of bloodthirsty Tibetan warrior priests intent on gouging out George’s eyes and every other foreigner at the moment. In the year before Forrest started his expedition, the British in India invaded Tibet. Tibet (then a nominal Chinese protectorate) had refused to trade with Great Britain and wanted to be left alone. No one should be allowed to be left alone and the obvious solution to the British was to invade the country and kill a whole bunch of people, which they did and it worked. Tibet was brought to its knees and signed an exclusive trade agreement. Later, the British realized that Tibet really didn’t have a lot of stuff that the British were interested in trading for, but that’s not the point, it’s the principle.

As a landscape contractor, winter sales are usually slow. I thought, though only briefly mind you, what if I used the British approach to trade in my business? Maybe I could show up outside a prospective client’s house with a field howitzer. “Give me the contract to your landscape work, or I’ll blow it and your family up!’ That might just be the solution to the winter doldrums most landscape businesses have, but on further cogitation I concluded it might not be the best sales ploy. Bad for word of mouth and Angies List referrals. Might work for big countries, but probably not for small businesses. . . . . Let me just take this opportunity to assure to my past, current and future customers that I pledge never to show up at your home with a howitzer and would further recommend to you that you never hire any other landscape contractor that does. . . . but I digress.

So, unbeknownst to Forrest, he has now entered an area filled with bent-out-of-shape Buddhists and as stories begin streaming in of atrocities and massacres of foreigners and Chinese Christian converts , it becomes clear it’s much too hot for picking primulas. It’s time to get out. Forrest, along with 2 French Jesuit priests, and a group of Chinese (about 80 in number) make a break to far off Talifu. . . but it is too late. The escape path is blocked and a horde of screaming, painted Tibetan lamas descend on the party. Only 2 escape, one of which is George Forrest. The 2 French priests were captured and tortured for 4 days before dying.

Forrest spends the next three weeks evading the rampaging rinpoches and their ferocious Tibetan mastiffs Travelling alone and living off of whatever he could forage, he traversed snow cap mountains and ice fields, through near impenetrable rhododendron thickets, up and down and up and down and sometimes backtracking when he ran into a patrol. He eventually made it to a native village where the local chieftain took pity on him and disguised him as a Tibetan. In this disguise, he eventually reached the safety of the Chinese town of Talifu.

Having an army of crazed zealots wanting to dismember you out of anger, or perhaps to encourage trade, would cause the average person to give up on plant hunting and turn to say, bargain hunting on Craigslist instead, but not George Forrest. It seems he spent no more time in Talifu recuperating from his ordeals than it takes to have a couple of stiff drinks and some Chinese haggis and then he set out on another plant hunting expedition the other way towards Burma. This time he went with an Englishman, George Litton. Their two months of slogging through insect ridden jungles resulted in Litton contracting malaria and dying on return. But the plant hunting season wasn’t done and there was no time for moping or mourning for Forrest. He set out again on another hunting expedition. This time back towards Tibet! Maybe those lethal lamas had gotten it all out of their systems by then. Other than catching malaria on the trip, no further drama occurred.

George Forrest returned to China for 6 more expeditions. He discovered 1200 new plants to science. Those included new rhododendron, azalea, primrose, hemerocallis (daylily), iris, camellia, buddleia, berberis, aster, deutzia, allium, acer (maple) and conifer species that are found in our gardens today.

It seems George was more into doing than he was into talking. He wrote very little narrative about his exploits. He claimed he would do that in his retirement. Between his last expedition and starting his own retirement web blog, Forrest dropped dead of a massive heart attack while hunting in the Chinese bush in 1932.

For those of us in the green trade with timid and unexciting lives, George Forrest’s exploits are an inspiration to live near the edge. Most of my plant hunting expeditions are to my local nurseries. But . . sometimes when strolling through the rhododendron section . . . . .I can feel eyes watching me. Is that a Tibetan headdress poking out the top of that Rhododendron giganteum? Good God! Does that sales associate approaching me have a Tibetan war axe in their hand? Quick! I’ll hide under these Primula malacoides on the bargain bench. I will survive this nursery visit! I will get out alive!

F & P