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28 Mar 2018

Brodick Castle and the tale of the plant hunters

Written by Tim Keyworth, Gardens and Designed Landscapes Manager, Ayrshire & Arran
Rhododedndron Barbatum at Brodick
Rhododedndron Barbatum - Photo: Brian Chapple
The gardens at Brodick Castle have strong links with two of the most famous plant hunters – George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward. They diced with death on many occasions to bring back precious seeds and plant material.

As the first of the rhododendrons come into flower at Brodick, it is worth sparing a thought for the intrepid plant collectors who introduced many of the plants you can see in the gardens today.

The Victorians and Edwardians were particularly fond of collecting plant material from far-flung unexplored corners of the world. Plant hunters were often sponsored to go on expeditions by wealthy individuals, botanical societies or nurseries, who would then have a right to a percentage of any seed or plant materials collected.

George Forrest (1873–1932)

Looking back through history, it’s interesting to note that many of the most successful plant hunters were Scottish, and George Forrest is a prime example. He was born in Falkirk and became one of the most prolific collectors in the early 20th century. He was one of the first to realise that to succeed he needed to embrace the culture of an area and work with the local people there. On his first trip to China’s Yunnan province in 1905 he got caught up in the political conflict between the Tibetans and the Chinese. War had broken out in the region and foreigners and people who had embraced the Western world were targeted. George and his team of 17 local people were attacked and he was the only person to survive. He managed to escape by fleeing into the jungle and was saved by a tribal chief after narrowly avoiding starvation. Remarkably, he carried on with the expedition and was to return to the region another five times. We believe that he collected around 1,200 plant species that were new to science, including many of our favourite rhododendrons, countless primulas and several types of buddleias.

Having diced with danger on many of his expeditions, as well as surviving malaria, he succumbed to a massive heart attack on 5 January 1932, during what was meant to be his last collecting adventure. He was buried at Tengyueh (now Tengchong), where he was often based when carrying out his plant collecting and research.

Francis Kingdon-Ward (1885–1958)

Born in Manchester, Francis Kingdon-Ward attended Cambridge University but had to cut short his scholarship when his father, a renowned botanist himself, died at the age of 58. This placed the family in financial difficulty and Frank, as he was known, was forced to find work. He had always been keen to travel and accepted a teaching position in Shanghai, although he had no intention of making this his career. Soon after, he had an opportunity to go on an expedition sponsored by the Duke of Bedford – its main focus was on animals but Frank managed to send a small selection of plants back to Cambridge University. This was the opening he had been waiting for, and from this first expedition he also started to write about his travels. He turned out to be a prolific writer, publishing in the region of 25 books, many of which are still in print today. In between trips he filled his time by giving presentations and talks about his expeditions and the plants that he had collected. He was sponsored by wealthy gardeners, perhaps most notably the owner of Bees Seeds. The main brief of the first expedition for them was to bring back new species of tropical plants hardy enough to survive in our climate. Although Kingdon-Ward was a talented plantsman, he never truly believed in his abilities. He often felt under pressure, especially on his second expedition for Bees Seeds, as many of the seeds he had collected on the first expedition had either failed to flower or turned out not to be hardy enough for the UK climate.

Like Forrest, Kingdon-Ward was no stranger to danger. A 40ft tree fell on his tent and much to the disbelief of his fellow team members he escaped without any injuries. He fell off a cliff twice, and another time his hut was crushed in a landslip caused by one of the most extreme earthquakes on record. On more than one occasion he got lost in dense jungle, and survived by eating sap and fruits from the plants, some of which gave him severe stomach cramps and even made him hallucinate. He also caught malaria in Burma (now Myanmar) relatively early on in his career as a plant hunter, which affected him for the rest of his life.

Kingdon-Ward undertook around 25 expeditions and introduced many new plants and varieties. He is possibly most famous for collecting the blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia), an iconic plant in many Trust gardens today. At Brodick, there are several huge specimens of one of his other introductions, Rhododendron macabeanum, and in complete contrast, good examples of the elegant and highly scented R. johnstoneanum. The latter is not completely hardy but can flourish in gardens with milder climates.

Rhododendron Maddenia
Rhododendron Maddenia
Rhododendron Macabeanum
Rhododendron Macabeanum

So next time you are walking round a garden, remember these incredible people who risked their lives to bring us the fantastic variety of plants and subsequent hybrids and cultivars that enrich our gardens today.