At the age of 22, with a young wife, Cyril travelled to Nyasaland, now part of Malawi, to strengthen the production of fruit and coffee plantations. Civil unrest made the post challenging yet that didn’t stop him, at short notice, creating a garden for the visit of the Queen Mother. An area of bush land was transformed into a flowering garden fit for a royal garden party. It even contained the standard rose ‘Queen Elizabeth’ in her honour.
Studying at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew followed. Cyril was paid eight pounds a week and topped up his income by maintaining the garden of the wife of Henry Ridley, a former Director of the Botanical Gardens in Singapore and the pioneer of Malaya’s rubber industry. Little did Cyril know then that he would soon be the senior assistant manager of a 5,000 acre rubber plantation and collecting live specimens of the flora to send to Kew!
Arriving in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo on New Year’s Day 1963 a new adventure awaited Cyril and his young family. The Sapong Rubber Estate near Tenom in Sabah became their home which was surrounded by the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis. The rubber trees were planted on flat ground and terraces with legumes planted on terrace faces to prevent erosion. Cyril worked with the rubber research station to increase the rubber yield by budding selective clones. He became a ‘jack of all trades’ – he oversaw a workforce of over a 1,000 to grow rubber trees, tap the trees, collect the latex, turning the latex into rubber sheets and then export it. It was a busy and fulfilling role.
Cyril was asked to collect living species and send them to RBG Kew . He collected from the local area and especially enjoyed plant hunting expeditions with his great friend Keith Wooliams, to the rainforests of Mount Kinabalu. There they found ‘a plantsman’s paradise – so many orchids, epiphytes, pitcher plants and ferns.’ The range of plants collected was diverse, from water lettuce to dwarf banana to rhododendron to fern to orchid. The plants were cleaned, labelled with name and number and then sent back to RBG Kew with detailed collecting notes. Many of the hundreds of plants collected were grown on at RBG Kew and some species, including the Asechynanthus tricolor and Rhododendron praetervisum shared with RBG Edinburgh. One of the plants, the epiphyte Rhododendron orbiculatum, was written about and published in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (CLXXV111, Part 1 , July 1970).
Cyril collected many very rare species of orchids which, although previously known to RBG Kew, had never before been seen as living specimens. In March 1965 he collected an orchid from the forest floor close to the Sapong Estate. This was found to be the only known specimen of the orchid named, in 2000, Kuhlhasseltia gilesii Ormerod.
Cyril can share many stories of life in a tropical rainforest with three children under four. From how to sterilise water, to teaching children how to stay safe from the spitting cobras on the wooden beams under the house or being marooned in the house for three weeks when the Padas river flooded!
From Borneo, Cyril and his family moved to Aden from where Cyril worked in the Yemen, Bahrain and a number of desert stations supporting the development of irrigation systems. After being evacuated due to unrest the family moved to Malta for three years. Cyril was instrumental in kick-starting the planting of woodland on previously bare land and was presented with the ‘Men of the Trees’ Gold Medal by the Agricultural Minister in recognition of the positive impact on the landscape.
In later years Cyril worked for the Department of the Environment in the UK and Gibraltar.
In retirement he has enjoyed acting as a consultant for exhibits for the Chelsea Flower Show where the displays, on both occasions, received a Gold Medal. For many years he has shared his knowledge of plants through being a judge at local horticultural shows and giving talks about his life as a plantsman. He has now slowed down and currently enjoys garden shows on the television and spending time with his family.
- Collected the only known specimen globally of the orchid Kuhlhasseltia gilesii whilst working in Borneo for RBG Kew.
- Whilst in Borneo also collected very rare species of orchids which, although previously known to Kew, had never before been seen as living specimens.
- Awarded Gold Medal by the Men of the Trees, Malta G. The award was presented by the Agricultural Minister.
- Consultant to the Men of the Trees.
- Planted a large woodland area before leaving Malta G.C.
- Elected Fellow of the Linnean Society of London.
- Designed and built a garden for the Queen Mother’s visit to Nyasaland (now part of Malawi) . The garden had to face the new mansion-style house. The area consisted of African bush land, which needed to be transformed with grass, roses, etc. to be appropriate for a royal garden party.
- Sourced two Queen Elizabeth Standard Roses from South Africa.
- The epiphyte Rhododendron orbiculatum published in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (CLXXVIII, Part 1, July 1970).
- Consultant at the Chelsea Flower Show for two years because of expert overseas knowledge. Each year the stand was awarded with a Gold Medal.
- Manager and consultant of the Convent Garden, Gibraltar.
- Team Leader for three years for Moneyfields Allotments at the Portsmouth and Southsea three-day show, receiving a Large Gold Medal for flowers, pot plants, fruit and vegetables.
- Consultant Tree Officer to the Flag Officer of Portsmouth. Worked at shore establishments including HMS Dryad and HMS Collingwood.
- Worked alongside the Forestry Commission researching Dutch Elm Disease.
- Awarded the George Brown award by the Kew Guild in 2022.
A story behind every plant
“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.”