A view of Brodick Castle seen from the wide entrance path, just past the gates. Large trees stand either side of the gravel path.
Ayrshire & Arran

Brodick Castle, Garden & Country Park

The Plant Hunters

From world-famous rhododendrons to multi-coloured magnolias, the gardens at Brodick Castle are home to some very rare plants. The story of how they got here involves daring expeditions and a green-fingered Duchess …

Brodick Castle’s unique gardens

Thanks to a date on the walled garden, we know that the proper management of the grounds at Brodick Castle began around 1710. At this time, the castle was moving away from its role as a military fortress and towards a new life as a comfortable residence for the Hamilton family. Now the gardens help to tell the stories of the people who have lived and worked here for centuries.

Brodick cares for some especially rare and exotic plants, including three National Collections of rhododendrons and numerous species of camellia. Thanks to its unique micro-climate, abundant rainfall and a shelterbelt which was established in the 18th century, Brodick’s garden is one of only a few places in Britain, let alone Scotland, where such tender plants can survive. But how did these far-flung flowers reach the Isle of Arran in the first place?

Plant hunting in the 1900s

For centuries, intrepid botanists have travelled to unexplored corners of the world in search of rare and exotic plants. In the mid-19th century, the invention of the Wardian Case – an early form of terrarium – made transporting delicate specimens and seeds all the more possible.

By the 1920s and 30s, plant hunting was at its peak. Wealthy individuals and botanical societies were eager to sponsor expeditions to such remote places as China, Tibet and South America, in return for a percentage of the seeds or plant materials that were collected. In 1923, Lady Mary Louise Hamilton, 6th Duchess of Montrose, began clearing large swathes of the gardens at Brodick Castle to make way for new (and newsworthy) plants. To obtain rare specimens of rhododendrons and azaleas she bought shares in a number of plant-hunting expeditions, including those of George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward.

Their stories prove that plant hunting was not a job for the faint of heart …

'Mary, Duchess of Montrose' by Philip A. De Lazlo in 1912.
'Mary, Duchess of Montrose' by Philip A. De Lazlo in 1912.

George Forrest

Many of the world’s most renowned plant hunters have been Scottish. George Forrest, born in Falkirk in 1873, was one of the most prolific plant collectors of the early 20th century. He was also one of the first western explorers of the south-western province of Yunnan in China, considered to be the most biodiverse province in the country.

Forrest would return to China many times in his life, but he might have been excused for steering clear of the Yunnan province. On his very first trip to the area in 1905, he was caught up in the political conflict between China and Tibet. War was raging in the region, and as they tried to defend a Catholic Mission George and his team of 17 local people were attacked. Forrest was the only person to survive and fled into the jungle. He was pursued for days over high mountain terrain and was close to starvation when he found refuge in a small Tibetan village. Remarkably, he made the decision to stay in the region and continue his collecting.

When Forrest died in 1932 it was from a heart attack, and he was buried in Tengyueh (now Tengchong), which he often used as a base for his work.

Frank Kingdon-Ward

Born in Manchester in 1885, Francis Kingdon-Ward was studying at Cambridge University when his father, a well-known botanist himself, died at the age of 58. Frank, as he was known, was forced to cut his education short and find work to support his family. He accepted a teaching position in Shanghai, then joined an expedition that ignited in him a passion for plant hunting, along with writing about his trips (today, Frank might have been a travel blogger).

Like Forrest, Kingdon-Ward was no stranger to danger. He caught malaria in Burma early on in his career, which affected him for the rest of his life. He fell off a cliff twice, his hut was crushed in a landslip, and a 40ft tree fell on his tent. He even had a knack for getting lost in the jungle, and often survived by eating sap and strange fruit, which would cause him to hallucinate.

Despite all these brushes with death, Kingdon-Ward lived to see his 73rd birthday. He even became a prolific author, publishing around 25 books, many of which are still in print today.

The plant hunters’ legacy

Both Forrest and Kingdon-Ward had a tremendous impact on the horticultural landscape of Britain, including the gardens at Brodick Castle. Thanks to Kingdon-Ward, the Duchess of Montrose acquired a species of her own from the Himalayas – Rhododendron montroseanum (also known as Rhododendron mollyanum). George Forrest collected around 1,200 plant species in his career that were new to science, including primulas and buddleias. Some of the Rhododendron magnificum in the garden at Brodick was grown from seeds collected by Forrest.

In the 1980s, gardeners at Brodick Castle uncovered the long-lost Plant Hunters’ Walk, and the trail was restored in 1994 with a lot of help from our dedicated volunteers. The legacy of the Duchess and the plant hunters has been beautifully preserved over the years by Brodick’s gardening teams and head gardeners such as John Basford, Nigel Price and Colin Totty. Our very own horticultural heroes have even been inspired to arrange their own plant-hunting expeditions – who knows what they might find in the future! Our current gardening team, led by head gardener Patrick Hayes, continue the work of previous garden teams at Brodick Castle in looking after this special collection.

Brodick Gardens and the Trust owe a huge debt to the likes of Forrest, Kingdon-Ward and the Duchess of Montrose. Without their passion and vision, the gardens at Brodick Castle would be far less spectacular. So, next time you pay us a visit make sure you follow the Plant Hunters’ Walk, and ask one of our friendly garden team to point out all the precious specimens.