Robert Fortune, Collecting in Northern China

The Chusan palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is one of the very few palm trees that can survive in the cool, wet Scottish climate. For that reason, it is a fairly common sight in Scotland, especially in coastal resorts attempting to offer a taste of the exotic to city vacationers. The species was introduced to Scotland by Robert Fortune (1813–80), who found it in 1844 growing on the Zhoushan (then transliterated as Chusan) archipelago, a group of 1,390 islands outside Hangzhou Bay just south of Shanghai. Fortune sent several of the plants to William Hooker at Kew with a request that Hooker send one to Prince Albert's garden at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Legend has it that the tree arrived safely and that Queen Victoria planted it herself on her 32nd birthday, on May 24, 1851.

Other interesting and attractive plants grew on the Zhoushan Islands, including many azaleas, and Fortune spent the summer of 1844 there. The Chinese government had ceded Hong Kong to Britain in 1842 under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking, and Fortune had arrived there in July 1843 on a mission to collect plants for the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in London. The RHS had supplied their official collector in China with a list of requests. Fortune was to look for peonies with blue flowers, mandarin oranges, roses, azaleas, and tea plants, and he was to investigate the peaches that grew in the emperor's private garden, which were said to weigh two pounds (1 kg) each. The ornamental plants he found had to be sufficiently hardy to thrive in Britain. Fortune would collect some plants in the wild, but he would also aim to purchase plants already being cultivated in China—or acquire them in any other way he could. The RHS provided him with trowels and a spade, a cosh for self-defense, a doublebarreled shotgun, and a Mandarin–English dictionary.

The English were not popular. The Treaty of Nanking was agreed at the end of the first of the opium wars in which the British forced the Chinese to import British opium. The treaty required the Chinese to pay heavy compensation for the opium their authorities had confiscated and destroyed to protect their population, to open several of their ports to British trading vessels, and, of course, to hand the important seaport of Hong Kong over to the British. It was highly unlikely, therefore, that Chinese growers would be willing to sell plants to Fortune, but he was resourceful. He learned to speak Mandarin well enough to pass as a person from a distant province with a curious accent. He wore Chinese dress and shaved his head to leave only a pigtail. His Chinese name was Sing Wah.

Fortune had many adventures. He survived storms and typhoons, was attacked by angry crowds who were not fooled by his disguise, and threatened by robbers and Yangtze River pirates. On one occasion he drove off a pirate attack by firing his shotgun at the two pirate junks. He shipped several consignments of plants back to Britain using the newly invented Wardian cases. The illustration that follows shows one of these cases, in which growing plants could survive for many months, allowing them to be shipped across the world. Fortune arrived back in London in May 1846 and became curator at the Chelsea Physic Garden. While there he wrote an account of his travels, Three Years' Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China. This book was published in two volumes in 1847 and sold well.

The Wardian case, invented in about 1829 by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791–1868), made it possible to transport living plant specimens around the world and have them arrive in a healthy condition.

Fortune's second expedition to China was made in 1848 on behalf of the British East India Company. The company wished to establish tea plantations in India, and for that purpose they asked Fortune to obtain shrubs of the highly prized silver-tipped tea, as well as instructions on their cultivation. At that time China was the only source of the best quality tea, and the Chinese were determined to keep their monopoly—the penalty for smuggling tea was death by beheading. The shrubs grew in the north of Fujian Province. Fortune disguised himself as an official from the imperial palace, and with the help of local workers over the course of three years he was able to collect more than 20,000 plants and send them to northern India in Wardian cases. Tea seeds cannot be stored, so living tea plants had to be shipped. The shrubs were planted in the hills around Darjiling (then called Darjeeling). A number of Chinese workers also made their way to Darjiling to instruct local people in the arts of tea growing. Tea lovers consider Darjeeling one of the finest of all teas; it is sometimes called the champagne of teas. An Indian tea industry prospered, and the Chinese monopoly was broken.

Fortune returned to China for two further expeditions, for the British East India Company in 1853–56 and for the U.S. Patent Office in 1858–59 to collect seeds of plants that might be cultivated in the United States. From 1860 to 1862, Fortune was acquiring plants in Japan on his own behalf. On that expedition he did not search for wild plants, but bought cultivated varieties, including chrysanthemums, from Japanese nurseries. He also visited Indonesia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. In all, Fortune was responsible for introducing more than 120 species of garden plants to Britain. He described his expeditions in A Journey to the Tea Countries of China (1852), Two Visits to the Tea Countries of China and the British Tea Plantations in the Himalaya (1853), A Residence Among the Chinese (1857), and Yedo and Peking: A Narrative of a Journey to the Capitals of Japan and China (1863).

Robert Fortune was born on September 16, 1812, at Edrum, near Duns, Berwickshire, in the Scottish borders. He was educated locally, and after leaving school he served an apprenticeship to a gardener in the nearby village of Kelloe. His apprenticeship completed, he went to work at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. In 1842 he obtained the post of deputy superintendent of the hothouse department at the Royal Horticultural Society at Chiswick, London. He retired after his return from Japan in 1862, returning to Scotland and becoming a farmer in East Lothian. His books brought him an income that allowed him to live comfortably. He died on April 13, 1880.