Robert Fortune was born in Scotland in 1812 and served his horticultural apprenticeship as a garden boy at Edinburgh Botanic Gardens. His career progressed until in 1842 he was Deputy Superintendent of the Horticultural Society's garden at Chiswick in England.
At this time China was a country closed to all foreigners, with the exception of French Jesuit missionaries. These missionaries sent small quantities of seed back to Europe, along with reports of many wonderful plants unknown in the west.
The Treaty of Nanking ended the first Opium War in 1842 and granted England the right of entry to the interior. The Horticultural Society chose Fortune to lead its first expedition even although Fortune had no experience of collecting or the Chinese language.
This 1843 expedition had limited success as the country was still in turmoil and access was still restricted to the coastal areas. Fortune not only brought back new plants but also new techniques including the art of bonsai. Fortune was appointed Curator of The Physic Garden in Chelsea but had been smitten by China and in 1848 set out once again for the far east.
The 1848 expedition was not merely to collect specimens but was one of the early instances of industrial espionage. Fortune had been charged with the task of learning the art of tea growing and then obtaining samples of the shrubs. The gardener who had arrived in China in 1843 unable to speak the language returned five years later, learned the secrets of tea making and disguised as a Chinese peasant smuggled tea plants from China into India and in so doing established the tea industry in India and Ceylon.
Fortune returned to China on several occasions and collected material from a country still in upheaval with a succession of Opium Wars. It was only later that the large collections were made by Forrest, Kingdom-Ward and Wilson.
Rhododendron fortunei bears his name but Fortune was responsible for the introduction of Jasminium nudiflorum, Dicentra spectabilis and Forsythia viridissima.
Fortune retired in 1862 to become a farmer back in his native Scotland. The man known to the Chinese as Sing Wah died in 1880.- Duncan McDougall
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