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Review: Robert Fortune – A Plant Hunter in the Orient

Stuart Read

Stuart Read

August 10, 2017

China’s burgeoning economic and political might in this century are quite a turn-around (one might say a return to form) from its cowed condition under the ‘Opium Wars’ (and Taiping Revolution – civil war) of the mid-late 19th century. Gun-ship ‘diplomacy’ was used to force foreign trade access to this vast country’s ports, to export the west’s craze product: fine tea. This led to foreigners stopping paying for it in silver (which the Chinese had demanded; pretty soon, no one had enough), by fostering Chinese opium addiction and boosting its imports. A sorry business: but not uncommon, when you look at major economic botany crops and world empires: coffee, rubber, chocolate, rice, corn, soy beans, palm oil…

‘Robert Fortune – A Plant Hunter in the Orient’ by Alistair Watt.


How apt that this book examines not just the tea trade but much wider horticultural, business and religious links between that country and the Western world, and that it should be published now. Most would know of the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society, which, in Fortune’s era (1840s-60s) was the Horticultural Society of London. They sent this young Scot to find novel plants from China to introduce into members’ (UK) gardens. We all have some of his introductions growing, perhaps without realizing.

Fortune’s Double Yellow Rose


Some would know, or grow, ‘Fortune’s Double Yellow’ rose, which caused quite a splash at a time when roses were thought to be white, red or pink. Or cumquats, mandarins and Buddha’s hand citrons. To say nothing of his hefty contributions to the range of available hardy camellias, rhododendrons, peonies, chrysanthemums, primulas, gentians and more!

He introduced some 280 plant species, some 200 entirely ‘new’ into cultivation outside China. So good was he at selecting the best varieties (from a country with some 1000 years of history of cultivation, selection and high-quality horticulture and floral display), choosing for their cold-hardiness (in cooler northern climates) and reliability mean many remain commonly in cultivation in gardens today – a long, long way from China. Watt compares latitudes, tellingly: Beijing is roughly equivalent to Melbourne; Hong Kong to Rockhampton; Ningbo to New Orleans or Lanzarote, in Spain’s Canary Islands. Choosing tender plants that would fail except under European glass wasn’t a lucrative way to go for Fortune – with a few exceptions: rare orchids and the like.

The great English nursery, Hilliers & Co’s stalwart Manual of Trees and Shrubs lists some 1500 species – of which some 100 are directly attributable to Fortune –still for sale today. This is a 1:15 ratio – not bad considering he only penetrated some one third of China. Later successors such as Frank Kingdom Ward, George Forrest or Augustine Henry had the advantages of no travel restrictions, bigger budgets and far-longer ‘runs’ and reach – no wonder their export legacy number out-rank Fortune’s: an unfair contrast.

Watt pithily notes how his local plant nursery (nothing special) in the Otways stocks directly or can within a week source some twenty of Robert Fortune’s plants to sell, today, locally. And contrasts this with a mere one plant, of George Forrest’s 31,000 plant species introductions – which is the greater legacy?

Some of his introductions were practical economic crops to introduce into (experimental, colonial) commercial production – fibre, paper-making, dyes, lacquers, oil crops (Camellia species, Tung oil).

A Wardian case, as used by Fortune to send his plant specimens back to Britain


He was also expert at packing, using Wardian cases, (sealed boxes with glass ‘roofs’) to put on ships’ decks or upper floors, to keep salt spray out, mediate fluctuating trip zone temperatures – and boost the percentage of survival of plants on those long, stormy voyages. Quick-learner that Fortune was, he lost few plants or seeds to the difficult trips to ‘market’: remarkable.

He took detailed notes of Chinese techniques of sophisticated horticulture – grafting tree peonies onto herbaceous peony roots (faster growing), growing citrus in pots, burying grape vines in hard-frost climates so they survived until spring, and using mud-wall insulated ‘glass houses’ (which I have seen in Korea, too) and more. The sheer competitiveness of the commercial nursery trade in the UK (and elsewhere) is on display here – along with some of the impressive prices mad-keen collectors would pay for a ‘new’ orchid, or exotic novelty. Victorian acquisitiveness and sage business-sense, sending nursery-specific collectors overseas to exclusively send ‘treasures’ for selective releases (splashy auctions, etc) onto the market.

‘Robert Fortune – a Plant Hunter in the Orient’ by Alistair Watts pp52-53


Reading the book you get a sense of the growing UK, USA, European and South Pacific excitement as China’s horticultural wealth became ever-more evident. And a sense of the connectivity of the world even then, and with the limitations of small ships, long voyages and flimsy ‘links’.

You also get flashes of Australian excitement: a big Sydney auction on 18/5/1850 of Fortune plants and an advertisement in the Hobart Courier newspaper in 1851 show tentacles here. Sir William Macarthur’s Camden Park in Sydney’s south-west got several Fortune novelties shortly after the UK or in some cases, prior – the export distance here being shorter. Triangular trade routes from Calcutta/India, Canton and Australian colonies took sandalwood, wool and brought tea and other vital supplies into the colony.

William Macleay of Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay House also gets a brief mention – this huge garden was a rich collection of plants from around the world, and Macleay was well-connected, so this should be no surprise. While Watt doesn’t touch on this, gentlemen such as Macarthur and Macleay donated many plants to the Sydney Botanic Gardens and into the trade in Australia, the former selling plants to New Zealand and beyond. Did these include some of Fortune’s?

Fortune’s circle of supporters and friends was very influential in the right circles: horticultural, political, commercial and social. A farm labourer’s son, by sheer hard work and evident talent he eventually mingled in elevated London circles, corresponding regularly with botanical guru John Lindley (effectively his ‘boss’ for the Society, but also a friend), William and Joseph Hooker, Directors at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Chelsea Physic Garden directors. Fortune sent private trunks and parcels of plants or seeds to gentlemen collectors on country acres. Some of these learned friends published and named his plant ‘finds’, some with the species name ‘fortunei’, but more often, citing their own nursery company name – collectors were often un-credited in the posterity stakes.

Fortune clearly liked China and the Chinese, his accounts being free of bias and fair to their side of the Opium Wars debacle and legacies. While he was at times attacked by pirates, assaulted and robbed, at other times he was showered with kindness, quickly introduced to gentlemen gardeners, mandarins, select nurserymen, diplomats and antique collectors (another passion and source of income).

Robert Fortune


Watt quashes several myths on Fortune: that he was a spy, who stole tea plants from under Chinese noses to introduce to India. Tosh! He could be credited with starting America’s tea industry had civil war not interrupted, although his role in India’s industry was minor, and late – selecting the best green and black tea varieties. He proved these came from the same plant (species): relying just on different processing for colour and qualities. Fortune exported thousands of seedlings, germinating in Wardian cases on boats, plus skilled tea growers, processors and packers, to up-skill the East India Company’s hill plantations.


Twelve chapters chart Fortune’s five expeditions to China, slowly penetrating further into its interior, at first in local disguise, given disruptions from Opium Wars, lingering resentment towards English, travel restrictions to ports, etc. They cover trips to Japan, and later Peking as the north was opening. His role in the tea industry and book-ending chapters consider his early training and influences, retirement and considerable legacy.

Robert Fortune’s expeditions in China. From ‘Robert Fortune – A Plant Hunter in the Orient’ by Alistair Watt


Watt’s vast plant knowledge (he’s a plant hunter himself, better-known for Chile and New Caledonia) wisdom, observation and hard work are evident. Seven appendices list his many plant, insect and mollusc introductions into the UK, USA, Australia (at least one shipment) and India. Others list his many publications (books and many articles in magazines, such as the influential Gardener’s Chronicle) and his (found, traceable) herbarium collections, despite these having been scattered. Amazingly, some are still not identified or named – there’s a project for someone keen.

Watt is right-up-to-date giving current, correct botanical names for all plants, along with their synonyms (historic plant names of the time, or as Fortune called or knew them). This is very helpful and a vexing problem with historic literature – botanists specialize in complicating such matters. Thanks to such fastidiousness, I have plenty of new plant names to investigate now, happily. This book is expensive but richly-rewarding – it is highly recommended.


Robert Fortune – a plant hunter in the Orient
Alistair Watt
Kew Publishing, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2017, (ISBN 978-18246-619-3); hard cover, 410 pp.

RRP: UK £45.00 (Kew Shop); US $70 (University of Chicago Press); AU $95 (Florilegium). Also available through Amazon, Book Depository and Booktopia.


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