They’re following in the plant hunter’s footsteps

Ida Skog and Morgan Sjöberg are going hiking in the footsteps of Scottish plant hunter George Forrest. They want to investigate which plants still remain one hundred years after the adventurer’s expeditions in southwestern China.

It’s a cold spring day in the Botanical Garden in Gothenburg and a China basking in the heat of summer seems extremely distant. But it is precisely there, to the province of Yunnan in southwestern China, that Ida Skog and Morgan Sjöberg will soon be headed.

Ida Skog och Morgan Sjöberg

When they met on the bachelor’s programme for the craft of gardens and landscape architecture, they discovered that both of them were interested in hiking. And when the time came for their degree project, Ida and Morgan began talking about what would be the most exciting thing to do.
‘We began thinking about where our plants come from and discovered that many, such as rhododendrons and primroses, come from China’, Morgan says. ‘And we thought we wanted to compare what it was like a hundred years ago with the way it looks today.’

The next step was to look for a plant hunter who had been a pioneer in China. They discovered Scotsman George Forrest. To learn more about him, Ida and Morgan travelled in November last year to Edinburgh, Scotland, to visit the Royal Botanic Garden. Both plants and documentation from Forrest’s expeditionary trips are collected there, providing an opportunity to get an idea of what it was like to be a plant hunter in Yunnan a hundred years ago.
‘The Royal Botanic Garden has a large collection of archival images’, Morgan says. ‘George photographed a lot during his expeditions in Yunnan. We have pictures from his camp and from the slopes up in the mountains and also many photos of individual plants. So there is a great deal of archival material that is especially exciting for us. It also makes it possible to find the places where he set up camp and the plant places he found.’

George Forrest made seven research expeditions to Yunnan province.
‘He died of a heart attack after a hunt during his last expedition in the early 1930s and is even buried in a small village in Yunnan’, says Ida.

In preparation for the trip, Ida and Morgan have read Forrest’s diary entries and travelogues and ploughed through maps and literature written about him. They want to compare the plant hunter’s role in the past with the present and examine how vegetation has changed since the beginning of the 20th century. They have chosen to call their degree project ‘Expedition south of the clouds’ with the subtitle ‘A plant hunter’s history in Yunnan, the Chinese province with the most species’. And they also are planning to continue working later with the collected material.

Just before the lilacs bloom in Sweden, they will be off to China. Morgan and Ida agree that this will probably be the biggest adventure of their lives.
‘I think it’s so awesome that we will be walking in Yunnan province in George’s footsteps, and maybe get to experience some of the same things he did’, Ida says. ‘He was one of the first plant hunters there. He had not made any similar trips before he went to China, and neither have we. So it feels like we will be having a little of the same experience. This will be a real experience, and I am really excited about it.’