On this day in history : 13th April 1880 – The death of Scottish botanist and plant hunter Robert Fortune – who brought to us some 250 new species of ornamental plants – and tea to India….

Robert Fortune – Public domain

Fortune was born in Kelloe, Berwickshire on the 16th of September 1812…. Little is known of his early years and to those who knew him he volunteered little information…. However, we do know he was an apprentice in the gardens of Moredun House and showed promise from the start…. He managed to gain a place at Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden and trained under William McNab, a man who was not easy to impress…. But impress him Fortune did – and with McNab’s backing around 1840 he became Superintendent of the Hothouse Department at the Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick, London….

A few months later fortune was granted the position of the Society’s new species collector in China…. He was sent off to find, amongst other things:- double yellow roses, blue peonies, true mandarin oranges, tea plants and information on the peaches that grew in the Emperor’s garden – which were said to weight 2lb each!

Arriving in Hong Kong on the 6th of July 1843 Fortune wasted no time in starting his search…. Over the next three years he made excursions deep into the northern provinces of China…. As plants and seeds were seen as property of the Chinese Empire Fortune would not have been particularly welcome…. He was to encounter many hazards including being threatened at knifepoint by angry crowds, as he went about collecting species such as wisteria and weigela…. He also faced horrendous storms and even pirates on the Yangtze River…. To blend in and avert suspicion he disguised himself as a local Chinese merchant…. He learnt to speak Mandarin, shaved his head and even sported a pigtail…. With this disguise Fortune was able to collect his species to transport back home…. He did this by using Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s Wardian cases, an early type of terrarium….

Wardian case – Public domain

He finally returned to London in May 1846 and the following year published his book ‘Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China’…. Using the journals he had kept he detailed Chinese gardening and agriculture and the history of China’s tea culture…. He had brought back with him a vast array of beautiful exotic ornamental plants and flowers, which were subsequently introduced to the gardens of Europe, the USA and Australia….

Rhododendron Fortune
Butterfly Buddleia – Buddleja lindleyana – Image credit : Pancrat – own work – CC BY-SA 3.0
Winter Jasmin – Jasminium nudiflorum – Image credit : Wildfeuer CC BY-SA 2.5

Fortune was to set off for China again…. This time for the East India Company, with the mission of securing the best possible tea plants with which to establish plantations in India…. Once more he disguised himself as a local merchant…. He hired an interpreter and ventured into the tea regions of China…. He managed to collect over 2,000 plants and some 17,000 germinating seeds, which were taken to the Himalayas to establish India’s tea industry….

Fortune was to make a further two trips to China and a trip to Japan…. He was to introduce hundreds of trees, shrubs and flowers to us…. From the Kumquat….

Kumquat – Image credit : Abaddon1337 – own work – CC BY-SA 3.0

to many varieties of azaleas, tree peonies and chrysanthemums…. Even the Dragon tree – and camellias, including the ‘Robert Fortune’ which was named for him….

Camellia Reticulata – Robert Fortune

Fortune died in London and was buried in Brompton Cemetery….

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