21st Century Plant Hunters hold the seeds of conservation


Hi-res images available on request

The days of the renowned plant hunters, such as George Forrest and Robert Brown, may be over, but new research shows their modern-day successors are continuing to make significant contributions to our understanding of the natural world. Now, the challenge is to ensure support and training are available for the collectors of the future. That is the message from a scientific report detailing collaboration between the Earthwatch Institute, Natural History Museum, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), Missouri Botanical Garden and Oxford University.


Led by Oxford University, with input from Dr David Harris and Dr Elspeth Haston at RBGE, the report - published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B - reveals that more than 50 percent of the world's plant species have been discovered by just two percent of plant collectors. And, while their predecessors were more inclined to collect in the interests of horticultural diversity, today’s adventurers are at the vanguard of international conservation. 

As such, the study concludes that, with such a small group of “big hitting” collectors making massive and disproportionate contributions to the discovery of plant species, support must be available to nurture plant hunters of the future. At RBGE alone, over the last five years, there has been an average of one new species identification per week. Working with partners around the world, the organization is creating the working model for global conservation.

David Harris explains: “Species identification is fundamental to understanding biodiversity. Only when a new species has been named can we start to assess whether or not it is endangered and its importance to the wider environment.


“Latest results show that a relatively small number of big hitting collectors make a massive and disproportionate contribution to the naming of new plant species. While there are exceptions, these ‘Big Hitters’ are generally distinguished by long careers, high rates of collection, broad geographical and taxonomic scope and increasing productivity through time. Our knowledge of global plant diversity owes much to those individuals and we need to nurture up-and-coming botanists to continue the work”.

For more information, interviews or images call Shauna Hay on 0131 248 2900 or Sandra Donnelly on 0131 240 1037




The process of species discovery includes three key stages - collection of specimens, recognition of species and publication of the results. The Oxford-led study assembled four datasets from around the world totalling 100,000 “type” or first-time described specimens to investigate the relative contribution of plant collectors.


The top ten Big Hitters represented in the Herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh are:

George Forrest and his dog

  • Forrest, George (1873 - 1932)
  • Pringle, Cyrus Guernsey (1838 - 1911)
  • Spruce, Richard (1817 - 1893)
  • Elmer, Adolf Daniel Edward (1870 - 1942)
  • Schlechter, Friedrich Richard Rudolf (1872 - 1925)

  • Cavalerie, Pierre Julien (1869 - 1927)

  • Davis, Peter Hadland (1918 - 1992)

  • Brown, Robert (1773 - 1858)

  • Kingdon-Ward Frank (1885 - 1958)

  • Bang, Miguel (1853 - 1895)


George Forrest

George Forrest was a prolific and adventurous plant hunter. He collected over 30,000 specimens whilst travelling across NW Yunnan, SW Sichuan, SE Tibet and NE Upper Burma. As well as herbarium specimens, he brought back vast quantities of seed, introducing many garden plants including a large number of Rhododendron and Primula species. He narrowly avoided being killed several times during his travels but died suddenly of heart failure on his seventh expedition in 1932 and was buried in Yunnan. He is the top Big Hitter in the herbarium at Edinburgh. Over 1,000 of his collections were new species and became type specimens.


Peter Davis

Peter Davis was professor of taxonomy at Edinburgh University and, for decades, closely linked with RBGE and its staff. His first collections in the east Mediteranean were made before the last war. After student days in Edinburgh he made very large and fundamentally important collections, with different co-collectors, in Turkey and almost all Mediterranean countries; also collected in other parts of the world. He collected over 60,000 specimens of which nearly 350 are now type specimens held at RBGE. From the mid-1950s on, all his first sets and field notebooks are at RBGE. The driving force, editor of, and major contributor to the 10 volumes of the definitive Flora of Turkey and the east Aegean islands, completed in the 23 years between 1965 and 1988.


Robert Brown

Robert Brown collected over 3,000 specimens during his travels to Australia, of which about 2,000 were new species. Although many of his specimens were lost on the Porpoise when it was shipwrecked on its way back to Britain, a large number made it back to give botanists a much better insight into the flora of Australia. There are nearly 350 types collected by Robert Brown held at RBGE. Robert Brown was an impressive botanist, combining highly successful fieldwork with impressive microscopy skills. His studies into pollen resulted in the discovery of Brownian motion with an impact across the whole of science.


Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), dating back to1670, is a Non Departmental Public Body established under the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1985, principally funded by the Scottish Government. It is also a registered charity, managed by a Board of Trustees appointed by Ministers. Its mission is “exploring and explaining the world of plants for a better future” and its primary functions are as a centre of scientific and horticultural excellence, keeper of the national collections and promoter of science in the public domain.


The four Gardens of RBGE - Edinburgh, Benmore, Dawyck and Logan - are numbered among the most popular visitor attractions in Scotland, bringing together many inter-related cultural areas of activity.    

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The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)