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RHS Online: Gardening for All


Harlow Carr | Hyde Hall | Rosemoor | Wisley |

Plants of Current Interest: April

Welcome to Wisley in spring

Magnolia campbellii subsp mollicomata
Spring stands up and smacks you in the face when you walk into Wisley this month. Graceful magnolias bloom around the Garden, daffodils in flower along the Canal. Walk up towards the Glasshouse and see a checkerboard of tulips on trial, and blossom in the Fruit Field further on.

George Forrest

George Forrest : Photo - George Forrest The vast range and variety of plants at Wisley owes a great deal to the plant hunters and collectors of years gone by. This month, the RHS is celebrating the contributions made by George Forrest (1873 - 1932) in the centenary year of the first of his seven trips to Yunnan, China. He introduced over 31,000 plant specimens to the UK, with over 1,200 species new to science.
George Forrest's camp in the Lichiang Mountains, Yunnan, China.  Photo - George Forrest Packing cases ready for despatch to Mr Williams of Caerhays Castle, Cornwall.  Photo - George Forrest.

In April, some of the Forrest introductions you can see at Wisley include:

Pleione orchids

Cool orchids, hot colours

Low growing, alpine, terrestrial Pleione orchids come mainly in a range of shades of pinks, purples and whites. But in 1912 the only yellow-flowered species Pleione forrestii was named after Forrest when he collected specimens in China. It has been immensely important in the breeding of pleiones and many hybrids have P. forrestii somewhere in their ancestry.

Other pleiones first collected by Forrest include P. albiflora, P. scopulorum and the natural hybrid P. x confusa. Visit the Alpine Display House to see examples of Forrest-derived pleiones such as P. Shantung g. 'Ducat', P.Soufrière g., and the hot-coloured P. Vesuvius g. this month.

Pleione Vesuvius g. Pleione Shantung g. 'Ducat'

Generous genus

Of all the plants that George Forrest introduced he is most remembered for the genus Rhododendron. Over 300 new species were described from his collections, including Rhododendron impeditum and R. griersonianum, R. wardii and R. campylogynum.

Small, blue-lilac flowers of the neat R. impeditum bloom on Battleston Hill in April. This dwarf rhododendron was discovered by Forrest in 1910.

Red rhodos

For its influence on horticulture, one of the most important of his introductions is Rhododendron griersonianum. Forrest found it in 1917 in a valley near the Burma frontier and quickly realised its potential. The normally reserved gentleman described its flowers as 'large blooms of a most beautiful shade of rose-scarlet, almost vermilion in some lights; one of the finest bits of colour I have ever seen.' Rhododendron 'Elizabeth'

Unsurprisingly, it is often employed as a parent in the production of rhododendron hybrids, used for its flower colour, funnel-shaped corolla and late-flowering habit.

Camellias to Cornwall

Camellia x williamsii Camellia x williamsii 'Donation' AGM

Forrest's travels between 1912 - 1915 were sponsored by the Williams family from Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, and large crates of specimens were transported back there. One such discovery was Camellia saluenensis, which, in the 1930s, J C Williams crossed with C. japonica. The first seedlings, combining the hardiness of one parent with the free-flowering nature of the other, produced C. x williamsii 'J C Williams', with sugary pink, long lasting flowers. C. x williamsii 'Donation' AGM is another popular hybrid of the same parentage.

Camellia 'Leonard Messel' AGM Camelii x williamsii 'J C Williams'

These days Battleston Hill and the Wild Garden flower with a profusion of camellias that bloom as a direct result of Forrest's work. Another of his finds, C. reticulata was crossed with C. x williamsii to produce C. 'Leonard Messel' AGM. Its large, loose, semi-double flowers are a deep, clear pink.


Lily of the valley type flowers on Pieris

The scarlet foliage of young leaves immediately catches the eye, while the fragrance from white, lily-of-the-valley-like flowers pervades the air with a vanilla-like scent. These characteristics make Pieris formosa var. forrestii, collected by Forrest in 1905, another important introduction.

The scaly, peeling bark of this plant extends its virtues, and several examples can be found in the Wild Garden and Battleston Hill, including the cultivar 'Wakehurst' AGM.

Forrest's trees

One of the snake bark maples, Acer davidii 'George Forrest' shows off its pink-red young stems on the back corner of Seven Acres at this time of year. The bark of the trunk is smooth and grey, with vertical white stripes. The unfolding leaves are red before darkening to green.

Abies forrestii var. smithii is an attractive silver fir tree with blue-green needles, with unripe cones a shade of dark purple. This tree grows in the Pinetum, to the left of the main path shortly before the footbridge.

The barck of Acer davidii Abies forrestii var. smithii in the Pinetum

The legacy of George Forrest

To reflect his affect on British gardens he was honoured with the Royal Horticultural Society's Victoria Medal of Honour in 1921.

In all seasons, and in all parts of the Garden, the influence of Forrest's plants can be admired. Magnolias, primulas, buddlejas, cotoneasters, irises, gentians - the list goes on.

For more information, visit the George Forrest exhibition in the Reception Hall of the Laboratory, 10am - 5pm Monday to Friday until 1 May 2004.