Tributes to ‘cheeky’ retiring Botanic garden chief

David Rae's cheeky attempt to photograph a waterlily. Picture: contributed
David Rae's cheeky attempt to photograph a waterlily. Picture: contributed
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DAVID Rae is a pioneering horticulturalist who has helped put the Royal Botanic Garden on the world map – but among friends and colleagues his main claim to fame is a candid picture of the time he plunged naked into a crocodile-infested swamp.

It happened in 1987 when Dr Rae – who has just retired as director of horticulture at the Botanics – was on a fieldwork expedition with colleague David Long to Botswana in southern Africa.

A fully-clad David Rae collecting samples in Japan. Picture: contributed

A fully-clad David Rae collecting samples in Japan. Picture: contributed

“We were there for about eight weeks, working mainly in the desert, but took some time off to visit this extraordinary habitat in the Okavango Delta,” he recalled. “There was this waterlily I wanted to photograph down low at water level.

“Who takes a swimming costume to the desert? So I stripped off and flung myself in. David stood with a pile of stones to throw if a crocodile came along – luckily none did.

“But he also took a picture of me lying there in the water with my bum sticking up.”

The picture was entered in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in the “Humorous Views” category and won a “Highly Commended” award.

Dr Rae said: “The caption was Hippobotanist – or was it Hippobottomist?”

The photo was also included in an exhibition about botanical expeditions and has been hanging on a wall in the Botanics for about 20 years.

“I don’t mind,” said Dr Rae. “I think it’s a bit of fun. I recently showed it to my new PA and she was quite shocked.”

He was not allowed to forget the picture even at his retirement do – when staff gave him a “cheeky” send-off with a cake modelled on the photograph. Dr Rae was delighted. “It was a brilliant cake – and a good laugh,” he said.

Dr Rae was born in Kenya but educated in Edinburgh and has worked at the Botanics for his entire 36-year career. He has pioneered new standards, developed an extensive education programme and is a highly respected member of the international horticultural community.

He joined the garden in 1978 as a lecturer in the School of Horticulture and served as its conservation coordinator before taking up the post of director of horticulture in 2000.

Following his retirement last week, Dr Rae has taken up the part-time role of director of the Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust.

Botanics Regius Keeper Simon Milne said: “David has inspired a whole generation of horticulturists, ensured that we are world leaders in horticulture and risen to the very top of his profession. It has been a privilege to have worked with David – his sense of duty, commitment and enthusiasm and his sense of humour and diplomatic charm will be missed.”