Esteemed botanist. Intrepid explorer. Compassionate philanthropist. George Forrest was a true renaissance man of the early twentieth century. Today, his legacy lives on — quite literally — all across the world through the innumerable plant species he introduced to Western cultivation. Although his seven expeditions into China's rich, fertile southern forests marked vital milestones for the field of botany, his stubborn lack of documentation leaves historians today puzzled as to how a single man could accomplish so much.
Forrest was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1873. Although originally planning to study chemistry at home, the young Scotsman would instead remain abroad for most of his life. His lifestyle took a turn for the adventurous in 1891 when, on receiving a small inheritance, Forrest ventured to Australia amidst the bustle of one of the country's numerous gold rushs.
On returning to Scotland ten years later, Forrest was serendipitously introduced to Isaac Bayley Balfour, Regius Professor of Botany at the Royal Botanical Garden of Edinburgh. Balfour, taken by the tenacity and resourcefulness of the rugged young man, recommended him to AK Bulley who was sponsoring an expedition to western China. Soon Forrest was on his way across the Atlantic and Indian oceans to the land south of the clouds — China's Yunnan province.
After setting up his first base of operation in the town of Talifu — today's Dali — in August 1904, the intrepid Scot made time to learn at least some of the local languages and get to know the people who lived there. He soon gained a deep admiration and respect for the inhabitants of Yunnan, and would later give back to the community by overseeing the inoculation of thousands of locals against smallpox at his own expense.
In the summer of 1905, Forrest mounted the first of many expeditions to the northwestern corner of Yunnan near today's border with Tibet. His first trip to the lush rhododendron forests above the Lancang River (廊沧江) would be both memorable and horrific, inextricably shaping his relationship with the native populations. After returning to the French mission in Tzekou — modern day Cigu (茨姑) — from a successful expedition, Forrest and his entourage were overrun by a group of armed Tibetan lamas.
For several years the Qing government in Beijing had allowed Christian missionaries to venture into Tibetan Buddhist regions of Yunnan and Tibet. Local lamas saw not only their political but also their religious sovereignty encroached upon. They were furious and a militant faction began to "cleanse" the region of outside influence through the massacre of foreigners or locals who were perceived to have converted to Christianity. Out of the 17 local porters and assistants on Forrest's 1905 expedition, all but one perished in the violence.
Through determination, shrewdness and luck, Forrest only narrowly escaped death during the purge. Père Étienne-Jules Dubernard, one of two French missionaries in Tzekou, was not so lucky. He was eventually found in a cave, unrecognizably mutilated and burned as a heretic. After eight harrowing days of pursuit by the lamas, Forrest was eventually saved by Lisu villagers — an indigenous people who also lived in the mountains of northwest Yunnan. The rescuers nursed him back to health and facilitated his concealed journey back to the safety of Talifu. His collection of thousands of plant specimens was destroyed.
Despite the traumatic experience, the Scot's resilience proved itself again when, just two months later, he embarked on a second journey through Yunnan with his life-long friend George Litton. The trip would turn out to be one of Forrest's most prosperous, seeing him collect thousands of new plant, seed and root specimens. Unfortunately, Forrest would experience another setback, when Litton was struck down with malaria and quickly passed away. On his next expedition, Forrest would himself contract the disease and only narrowly recover.
Although littered with a number of personal and professional hardships, George Forrest persevered through everything and came to call Yunnan home. During his six subsequent journeys, he discovered 1,200 plants new to science, along with dozens of bird and mammal species. Overall, 31,000 specimens from China's southern forests were sent back to England by Forrest. Today, more than thirty genera bear the Scotsman's specific nomenclature epithet — forrestii. Given Forrest's passion for exploration, however, the actual task of documenting the findings was left primarily to Balfour, his friend and previous financier.
For his efforts, Forrest would later receive several medals of honor and induction into England's prestigious and exclusive Linnean Society. By 1930, Forrest prepared himself for one final trip, an expedition he believed would be his magnum opus. His premonition proved correct. Two years later, the botanist had effectively covered the majority of loose ends from his previous research, again finding thousands of rare species and forever expanding the gardens of Europe.
As if taken from an Elizabethan drama, Forrest suffered a lethal heart attack just after finishing the bulk of his work, leaving behind a wife and three young children in England that he rarely saw. Staying true to his adventurous spirit, the Scottish-born botanist was buried in Tengchong (腾冲) under the same fertile ground he studied for the majority of his life.