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CENTENARY OF INTREPID ADVENTURER
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.
One of the foremost plant collectors of the early 20 th century, Falkirk-born Forrest's first trip in 1904 and six subsequent expeditions [some lasting up to 3 years at a time] resulted in a wealth of scientific discoveries and new horticultural gems. British gardens would never look the same again, with many familiar species of primula, rhododendron, iris, camellia, clematis; gentian, jasmine and conifer introduced by him from their native China . In the course of his 28-year career, Forrest's travels in Yunnan included some of the most remote and unexplored areas in South Western China. The spectacular Cang Shan and Yulong Xue Shan mountain ranges [or the Tali and Lichiang mountain ranges, as they were called then], were the source of many plant discoveries.
Risking life and limb, Forrest's letters home tell of life-threatening adventures in turbulent and restless China . In one letter Forrest's recalls being pursued by a group of lamas [Buddhist monks] and evading capture by dressing as a Chinese native, enduring hunger and exposure in the cover of the hills for 21 days. "About 20 natives were killed, and a great number more captured and taken into slavery," he wrote; "The heads and hearts were taken north to Atunze .but I was lucky and skilful enough to beat them on their own game" . Romantic letters home to his dear wife Clementina show a softer and caring man. " I have not recovered, nor do I expect to for some time, from the wrench of leaving my wife and child. In all my wanderings I never felt so utterly home-sick as I do now ", he wrote on leaving Liverpool for Burma .
He sent pressed specimens of all the plants he collected to the RBGE for identification. From there the Garden's expertise in the flora of this part of the world, and its interest in rhododendrons, grew. In the RBGE Herbarium, where dried plant specimens for scientific study are stored, the 31,000 or so specimens collected by Forrest bear testament to the fact that his travels not only brought new material to horticulture, but gave botanists in Britain a new understanding of a very rich and unique flora. Today more than 50 original Forrest introductions and their descendants can be seen growing in the Edinburgh Garden .
Some of his expeditions were sponsored by syndicates of individuals and organisations with an interest in natural history, and he was contracted to collect not only plants, but birds, mammals and insects too. Several were eventually described as new to science and named in his honour, such Alcippe chryosotis forresti a bird otherwise known as the golden-breasted fulvetta.
In the archives of the RBGE, Forrest's adventures come to life in black and white. The explorer was a prolific photographer, capturing the places, plants and people of Yunnan . Forrest produced the first photos of many of Yunnan 's plants in the wild. Today his pictorial legacy takes the shape of an estimated 1,700 images (glass plate negatives and original prints). Among the wealth of Forrest-related documents also kept in the archives are hundreds of letters written by him to Isaac Bayley Balfour, RBGE's Regius Keeper at the time, and his successor William Wright Smith, along with more than 20 of his meticulous field notebooks documenting his botanical finds.
Both the book and the exhibition promises to provide a fascinating insight into a truly intriguing man, as well as British horticultural history and the turmoil of China in the early twentieth century. Through Brenda's meticulous research, it emerges that Forrest was a determined, confident character who also suffered bouts of insecurity and was prone to a bad temper. But in the end it is Forrest's spirit of adventure and determination to succeed, which mark him as an inspirational figure. Forrest died of a heart attack while out in the field, on 6 January 1932 , not far from his base at Tengyueh [Tengchong] where he was buried. Ironically he was coming to the end of his 7 th and last expedition planned before retirement, and was packing up before coming home to Scotland .
A century later, the landscape Forrest traversed has changed dramatically - once uncharted valleys and forests are now developed and deforested. Yet modern-day Chinese scientists and their collaborators are treading in his footsteps, continually the flora of China and trying to help preserve the rich biodiversity of this mountainous area of China .