A Story Behind Every Plant

Aeschynanthus tricolor growing at RBGE

Cyril Giles’ collection Aeschynanthus tricolor growing at RBGE


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.

Rhododendron praetervisum

Rhododendron praetervisum

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 with his children in Borneo, 1965

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 & Celia’s third child Fiona was born in Sabah


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.

Keith Woolliams

Keith Woolliams


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”.


Cyril Giles & Sadie Barber

Cyril Giles was presented a specimen of Rhododendron praetervisum by RBGE horticulturist Sadie Barber


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.

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  1. What a splendid story!

  2. Aliko Woolliams

    What a great news to know that Cyril had a chance to see his past effort for the botanical world has been noted and recognised
    And more over those plants are safely protected and propagated for the future generations. Do you know these Rhododendron preatevisam and Aeschyanthus tricolor are thriving in the Kinabalu?
    My husband Keith Woolliams would have been very proud and grateful to see your effort and I would like to come and see them in the future.

    • Sadie Barber

      Thank you for your message Aliko. It’s wonderful to hear that the plants are thriving in their natural habitat, and we look forward to welcoming you to the Garden in the future to check on their propagules!

  3. Tom Smith

    I was born in Tenom in 1965
    I was wondering if you knew my parents or some of their associated friends. David and Betty Smith
    Bill and Margaret Baird
    Boyd and Blanche Aitken

    • Sadie Barber

      Hi Tom,
      I will try to find out whether Cyril Giles or his family might know of your parents or their friends; nice to find these links from across the world!
      Best wishes,

    • sam giles

      Hi Tom,

      I’m Cyril’s grandson and am currently sat with him looking through these comments. He does indeed remember everyone mentioned!

      He recalls living 5 miles away from you on the other side of the river in Sapong Rubber Estate. He knew all the family and fondly remembers selling the carriage pram to either your parents or the Aitkens. If you have photos or being pushed in a huge pram then it could well have been Cyrils! Do let us know if you have the answer.

      Will be great hearing from you,

  4. Wendy Mitchell

    My Mother was related to Cyril & I have just found the original newspaper cutting taken from the Portsmouth Evening News on 30th Oct 1967. Happy to share it if anyone is interested. My mother was Doris Mitchell ( Nee Lodge).

    • Sadie Barber

      Thank you for your message Wendy; it’s so good to unearth all these interesting stories behind the plants we grow at the RBGE!
      It would be interesting to see an image of the newspaper cutting if you can share it by email.
      If you can, please send to me at sbarber@rbge.org.uk
      Thank you,

    • Iain Giles

      Hello Wendy! I have just found your message from last year. I would be very interested in the newspaper article and our family connection. I am Cyril’s son.

      • Wendy Mitchell

        Hi Iain, I will find it and email it to you. Send me your email address. It may take me a few days to go through Mum’s papers. My Mum sadly passed away 3 years ago but she always told us about Cyril. My email address is wsmitchell@sky.com. Best wishes Wendy

  5. Wendy Mitchell

    Iain I have found the article so if you email me I can send it to you. Wendy

  6. Hi Iain if you would still like to see the article drop me an email wsmitchell@sky.com
    Kind regards