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Edinburgh’s ‘Indiana Jones of botany’ given medal

George is an expert on plants and has been honoured by Americas National Tropical Botanical Garden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

George is an expert on plants and has been honoured by Americas National Tropical Botanical Garden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

 

A DAREDEVIL explorer based in Edinburgh who gathers exotic plants from the remotest and most inhospitable places on Earth has been honoured by one of America’s leading botanic gardens.

Dr George Argent has ventured through sweltering rainforests and up remote mountains, braving dangerous wildlife and civil wars, in search of the world’s rarest plant life.

Thanks to his expeditions, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) – where Dr Argent, 71, has been based for nearly three decades – holds the world’s largest cultivated collection of Vireya rhododendrons.

Now, America’s National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii has honoured Dr Argent’s exploits, awarding him the 2013 David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration.

Dr Argent said: “I feel as much as anything that it’s also recognition for the Botanic Garden here in Edinburgh.

“I believe I’m the first person to have won it on behalf of Edinburgh – the previous UK winners were from Kew Gardens in London – and it’s a very gratifying recognition of one’s career.”

He said one of his most vivid memories was of an expedition in 1986 in Papua New Guinea, when he was forced to fly from an airport while natives outside were engaged in a tribal war.

“When we got to the airport, my driver took one look at the crowd and told me I could either walk to the airport by myself or come back with him,” said Dr Argent.

“Of course, I got out and walked to the airport. It was all boarded and shut because of the rioting, but the tribesmen stopped when they saw me.

“They removed the glass from one of the airport windows and helped me climb through. The airport staff were cowering behind the check-in desks.

“Incredibly, I was then able to check in while this tribal riot was happening outside. I think the fact I was white meant I wasn’t targeted.”

Dr Argent said his daring expeditions had brought him closer than he would have liked to dangerous wildlife, including jungle cats, but he has also discovered plants including the rare and beautiful slipper orchid, which had not been cultivated in the West for more than a century when it was found by Dr Argent on Malaysia’s Mount Mulu in 1977.

He said: “Finding plants like that and bringing them home has always been incredibly exciting for me.”

Dr Peter Wilkie, RBGE tropical botanist, said: “The gathering of such a vast collection of Vireya rhododendrons from across south-east Asia has been no small task, given that most of them are to be found at the top of high tropical mountains.

“I am sure this award is also in recognition of the cumulative months, if not years, that he has spent in the Tropics working in often very difficult conditions.

“Dr Argent’s efforts in collecting these plants and training future researchers has meant that these collections will continue to be an important research resource and important in the conservation of these species.”

 

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