Every wild collected plant in the huge living collection at RBGE comes with a story. Of course, some are more interesting than others…
In 2014 Katherine Dixon contacted the Garden and enquired after collections made in the 1960s in Borneo; these collections were made by her grandfather, Cyril Giles, along with the late Keith Woolliams.
Aeschynanthus tricolor and Rhododendron praetervisum were collected by Giles and Woolliams in 1963 on RBG Kew’s expedition to Sabah, Borneo (Malaysia). The living plants made their way back to Kew, and cuttings were shared with Edinburgh. Almost 50 years later, both plants are growing well in Edinburgh’s glasshouses.
Cyril Giles, now in his 81st year, visited the Garden this July to see his original collections; we met and he shared stories of his time as a horticulturist and working in Borneo.
Born in Malta in 1935, Cyril started working under glass at 13 years old, growing cucumber and sweet peas. He went on to pass the RHS exam at 16 years old and until age 18 worked as trainee gardener. Cyril proved to be a very good student and was awarded certificates with distinction from various institutes, including RBG Kew.
Following his studentship at Kew, Cyril was offered work as Senior Assistant Manager on the large Sapong rubber estate near Tenom in Sabah, Borneo. He travelled to Borneo as a passenger on a Scottish ‘Ben Line’ cargo ship destined for Singapore, where he then took a plane to Sabah’s city of Kota Kinabalu (then named Jesselton).
Cyril was employed on the 20,000 acre estate, 5,000 acres of which were home to rubber trees Hevea brasiliensis. The rubber trees were planted on flat ground and terraces, with legumes planted on terrace faces to prevent erosion.
Cyril tells me “we budded several clones, which gave a higher yield; we got this information from our rubber research station. Tapping started when the trees were about 5 years old; one had to be ‘Jack of all trades’ to grow the rubber trees, tap the trees, collect the latex, turn the latex into rubber sheets, and export them to Japan.
“Some beautiful plants would grow on the rubber trees, and it was one of my tasks to have them removed; I found it difficult to remove these beautiful native plants, especially as some had been growing on the rubber trees for several years. Some I remember were huge Cymbidium, very large birds nest fern (Asplenium nidus), and the stag horn fern (Platycerium).”
Cyril recalls “Sapong was isolated. The roads were extremely poor and there were no bridges. The only route to Tenom was by steam train, which ran through a gorge with regular landslides. When I first travelled to Sapong with my wife Celia and our two children, Shane (2 years) and Iain (6 weeks), we encountered at least four landslips. I must have been mad to bring my family to Borneo! However we enjoyed every moment, including the leeches, snakes and scorpions.”
Cyril and his wife Celia had their third child, Fiona, while in Borneo. On his recent visit to the Glasshouses at RBGE, Cyril was accompanied by Fiona, and I was awarded some fantastic stories of life in Borneo.
In 1963, Cyril’s best friend from Kew, Keith Woolliams (1940-2011) joined Cyril in Borneo to carry out a plant hunting expedition to the rainforests of Mount Kinabalu. Cyril describes his late friend as “a wonderful propagator; he could put roots on a wooden chair leg!”
The pair of them travelled the dangerous roads to the base camp of Mount Kinabalu, and there they found “a plantsman’s paradise – so many orchids, epiphytes, pitcher plants and ferns, with moss covering trees’ branches”.
The plants collected were cleaned, labelled with name and number, and then sent back to RBG Kew with detailed collecting notes.
Happily, many of the plants collected made the trip back to Britain successfully and were grown on at RBG Kew, and then some specimens (including the Aeschynanthus tricolor and Rhododendron praetervisum) shared with RBG Edinburgh.
On his visit to the Garden, Cyril was delighted to see the plants he last saw in the jungles of Borneo over 50 years ago growing well under the care of RBGE’s glasshouse horticulturists. He was presented with a special herbarium specimen of his Rhododendron praetervisum, which I am assured will be framed and take pride of place in his home.