Collecting with Lao Chao [Zhao Chengzhang]: Decolonising the Collecting Trips of George Forrest

Written by Yvette Harvey, Keeper of the Herbarium, Royal Horticultural Society, RHS Garden Wisley.

Lao Chao (left) and team. McLean (2004: 193) wrote that Forrest called Lao Chao his ‘best card in this business’ © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

This is the essence of a talk that was recently presented at the virtual conference of the US based Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC). Inspired by Das & Lowe in their 2017 NatSCA conference talk and subsequent paper (2018), in a similar way mentioned by Machin (2020) in her recent blog, I have started looking at stories by and about some of our revered plant collectors, or rather, hunting for small clues about their escapades from the perspective of others on their teams. This is with the aim of decolonising narratives for present and future interpretation, having finally opened my eyes and realised that current interpretation for living collections can fall way short of acknowledging what really happened and where credit should lie. And being mindful of different concepts of decolonisation, discussed by Gelsthorpe (2020) in an earlier blog.

For years, the curators of museums and living collections, and their visitors have been programmed to respond to and expect talks of the grand, death-defying adventures of our collectors – so much so that we appear to have closed our minds to the realities and injustices of what really happened on expeditions.

George Forrest © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

The main focus here is on George Forrest, born in 1873, the Scottish plant collector whose collections still have a huge impact on what is grown in our gardens today. Son of a draper’s shop assistant, Forrest had an interesting earlier career after leaving school at 18 – he worked in a pharmaceutical chemists prior to getting a small inheritance that gave him the opportunity to travel to Australia where he undertook a few jobs including sheep shearing and gold-mining (McLean 2004). On his return to the UK, through a serendipitous stroke of luck in discovering a rare archaeological find whilst out botanising, he landed a job as an assistant in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1903 – gaining curatorial skills and insights necessary to make him an ideal plant collector in the field.

When the alpine plant enthusiast Arthur Bulley came looking for someone to collect seed in the newly accessible Yunnan province in China, George leapt at the chance. Mr Bulley was a cotton broker based in Liverpool, who had recently acquired land to make the Ness Botanic Garden. He was also the founder of Bees Ltd, a seed company. He had an enthusiasm and fascination for introducing new plants to the public and frequently showed his collection, even at Chelsea. At this time Yunnan was largely unexplored with the exception of Père Jean Marie Delavay, a missionary based in the region during the 1880s, whose collections inspired Bulley’s yearning to place a full-time collector in Yunnan.

Bee’s Ltd advertisement within the 1914 RHS Chelsea Flower Show catalogue. Note the reference to Forrest’s collections © RHS Lindley Library

Up until shortly before the start of Forrest’s collecting trips, China had been mostly closed to ‘foreigners’. The story of how China opened up rarely features in any plant collecting narratives, especially how Yunnan became so accessible, and yet this adds considerable dimension to the overall picture.

We always hear of the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) Robert Fortune being the first real western collector in China, made possible by the opening of coastal China in 1843. This came from the Treaty of Nanking, opening up more trading areas along the coast to the British following the Qing Dynasty’s defeat in the Opium Wars [in a nut-shell, a war triggered by the Dynasty’s campaign against illegal imports of opium sold by the English owned East India Company to smugglers based in Canton]. Yunnan was inaccessible to foreigners until 1860 when the Chinese were forced to lessen the restrictions placed on foreign travel to missionaries who were then able to establish missions where they chose. In their spare time, many of the missionaries botanised – and Père Delavay was just one of them. Yunnan became accessible to British traders in 1886 when the ‘conquering’ British forces made Burma [Myanmar] a province of India and in so doing, freeing a path into eastern China.

Forrest’s China was towards the end of the Manchu-led Qing dynasties, when Imperial control had been weakened. The remote south-west region of Yunnan had many ethnic minority groups, each with their own traditions and cultures, but even so, all travellers had to pay respects and dues to Yunnan’s Chinese civil official. Forrest travelled up the Irrawady by steamer, alighting at Bhamo in Myanmar, the limit of the steamer service, just 50 km shy of the border with China, continuing his journey on mule.

The first walled town beyond the border was Tengyeuh (Tengchong) and it was here that he encountered Mr Litton, the British Consul who provided him with a Chinese passport and accompanied him on his first botanical trip, across the gorges of the Salaween and Mekong rivers to Tali, within the vicinity of Père Delavay’s former collecting areas. Forrest later commemorated Litton by naming a Primula after him. Primula vialii (P. littoniana) has endured in cultivation – the white flowered form, ‘Alison Holland’ was one of the competitors for the Chelsea Plant of the year in 2016. As Primula littoniana – a plant from Bees Nursery was awarded the First Class Certificate in 1909.

Primula vialii ‘Alison Holland’ RHS/Sarah Cuttle © The Royal Horticultural Society

Between 1904 and his eventual death in 1932, Forrest’s collections number in the 10s of thousands. After a few years of being the plant collector of individual patrons, and following societal changes caused by the Great War, Forrest quickly adapted to the problems imposed by rapid inflation and syndicated his collecting trips, allowing members of the syndicate an opportunity to share in his new finds. His 1917-1919 trip was part sponsored by the RHS amongst others – and, as we have already seen, his finds still influence the plants we see in our gardens today. The top sponsor of the 1917-1919 was J.C. Williams of Caerhays Castle in Cornwall [his name is prominent on the collections boxes being returned to Cornwall via Rangoon, see figure 8] – still famed for its fine living collection of Rhododendron, Magnolia and Camellia.

Newly discovered, the rather sumptuous Rhododendron griersonianum was introduced to cultivation by Forrest in 1917, and gained the award of First Class Certificate in 1924. Forrest named this find in honour of a British customs official who had helped him export his specimens. Over 340 hybrids made with either a seed or pollen parent of R. griersonianum have been registered – one of the last being named ‘Hot Flash’.

Herbarium specimen made by E.K. Janaki Ammal of a cross between Rhododendron griersonianum and R. auriculatum © The Royal Horticultural Society

But how can a man on his own manage to collect tens of thousands of plants – making herbarium specimens and duplicates whilst collecting tonnes of seed? The answer is seen in the image taken by Forrest of some of his collecting team with stacks of drying papers roped to wooden saddles ready for mule transport. Forrest had an extensive collecting team divided into numerous subteams to cover wide areas during all seasons. After botanising with Litton, Forrest realised that he couldn’t achieve his goal working alone and whist staying in Snow Mountain Village in 1905/6, employed a team of local Naxi people. Forrest’s team included women, his letters describe their toughness and practicality for the task of collecting. His 1905/06 team formed the core of future collecting teams until his death in 1932. Seen five from the right is Lao Chao [Zhao Chengzhang], the head of the teams.

Forrest’s collecting team with stacks of drying papers roped to wooden saddles ready for mule transport. Lao Chao is seen here, fifth from the right © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

We also have images of the team in action, although it is a little hard to see owing to size, note the presses being weighed down by rocks in the middle foreground of the tented images, and Lao Chao and members of his team processing some of the thousands of seeds to be sent to the UK [the A numbers that you encounter on the Forrest specimen labels refer to seed collections].

Camp in the Lichiang Range (Yulong Shan) © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Preparing and sorting seed © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Some of the many collecting boxes destined for Caerhays Castle, leaving China via Rangoon. The RHS still has some of the boxes that returned laden with seed for RHS Garden Wisley and is able to use them for interpretation © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

During periods when Forrest suffered from illness, or absences during the Winter months, even when he had returned to England, the teams continued collecting under Forrest numbers.

The specimens and their duplicates have proven invaluable for naming the plants. All are in Forrest’s name and there is no acknowledgement of any additional collectors. Forrest processed all the specimens – and provided a translation of the notes written by the collectors before discarding them (Leonie Paterson pers. comm.). There are but a small handful of specimens with the original notes, and duplicates have even fewer transcribed notes. One of the rare ones is Codonopsis chimiliensis. Both the syntype from RBG Edinburgh and the isotype in Paris can be viewed here and here respectively. Note the Chinese writing on the Edinburgh specimen, including extensive notes in English that were not transcribed on the isotype’s label.

As mentioned above, many specimens were collected during periods of Forrest’s absence and here is a case in point. During a visit to Bhamo, Forrest sent his collectors back to Tengyueh ahead of him. The collecting teams returned from the Shweli-Salween Divide with a mule-load of seed, including a specimen of a 6-9 m Rhododendron with huge leaves up to 76 cm in length. Named Rhododendron sinogrande, it caused a sensation back in the UK and Forrest was celebrated for ‘his’ find (McLean 2004: 112).

Rhododendron sinogrande © The Royal Horticultural Society

Although never acknowledged on the labels, his teams were mentioned in correspondence. Seen here is an excerpt from a letter received by Mr Chittenden (first Director of the RHS).

Excerpt from a letter sent to Mr Chittenden by George Forrest © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

That his affection for, and equally the support and affection from his team is undisputable. But taking a quick look at the names of taxa described by Forrest – of the 418 records not a single one commemorates Lao Chao – and yet he named many after Bulley, his wife, children, his friend Litton and the useful customs clerk, Grierson. One is left wondering how many of the 285 taxa given the epithet forrestii’s were actually collected directly by George Forrest? Mueggler’s The Paper Road gives a more in depth look at Forrest’s teams and also discusses his rival, Joseph Rock’s collecting team. Regrettably a Google search can’t produce the names of Forrest’s collecting team, and neither are they all listed in McLean’s 239 page biography of George Forrest.

It is hard when looking at this with a ‘modern’ non-BAME eye to recall how things were done right up until the recent past. Forrest’s knowledge of collecting was gained from his experience of curating older specimens, when only the lead collector was acknowledged on labels. He was of an era where paid staff were seen as working under instruction – in fact, even in talks and papers today some authors are still just giving praise to ‘my team’ or to ‘my lab technician’ implying nameless servants. Ironically, Forrest was in a similar position as he too received a wage.

Whilst still pondering on the injustices, I am very excited to give a voice to the wonderful Zhao Chengzhang and the additional team members, acknowledging their incredibly valuable work and tenacity. As we (curators) access our archives, and more are available online, I look forward to reading many more decolonised narratives.


Das, S. & Lowe, M. (2018). Nature Read in Black and White: decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections 6: 4-14.

Gelsthorpe, D. (2020). NatSCA Blog: Decolonising Natural Sciences Collections.

Machin, R. (2020). Leeds Museums & Galleries blog,

McLean, B. (2004). George Forrest: Plant Hunter. Pp. 239. Antique Collectors Club.

Mueggler, E. (2011). The Paper Road: Archives and Experiences in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet. Pp. 376. University of California Press.


A huge thank you to the Archives team of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh and also the RHS’s Lindley Library for permissions to use images, supporting literature, and expertise and discussions about Forrest; and to the generosity of the RHS members, and sponsorship by the 1951 Royal Commission and the National Lottery Heritage Fund that made this work possible. I am grateful to Genevieve Tocci of the Harvard University Herbarium for spurring me on to write this blog. Thanks are due to the organisers of the 2020 SPNHC virtual conference for giving me the opportunity to present this subject. But most especially, thanks are due to Miranda Lowe of the UK’s Natural History Museum who generously shared her time and expertise with me.

5 thoughts on “Collecting with Lao Chao [Zhao Chengzhang]: Decolonising the Collecting Trips of George Forrest

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