Robert Fortune (1813 - 1880)

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Trachycarpus fortunei (the Chusan Palm) is thought to be the hardiest of all palms. It grows outside in Edinburgh, which is appropriate in a way, because it was introduced from China by a Scot, Robert Fortune. From a humble home (cottage folk) and with only primary education, he was apprenticed to a nurseryman and later employed at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. From there he moved to the gardens of the Horticultural Society in London, where his ability as a gardener and a botanist became apparent.

The Society chose him to collect plants for them in China, and he arrived in Hong Kong in 1843. He was to stay in China for three years, including a short trip to the Philippines to collect plants of the orchid Phalaenopsis amabilis, which was rare and in much demand.

For his first trip Fortune was given a long list of desirable items including the peaches grown in the Emperors garden and said to weigh two pounds each, Mandarin oranges, roses, azaleas - and always to look for hardy plants. This was not collecting in the field, more a purchasing expedition, buying plants from growers or acquiring them by any means from the Chinese, who were usually not keen to part with them. In fact, after the First Opium War they were - not unreasonably - quite hostile to Europeans. Fortune was equipped for his trip by the Horticultural Society with a spade and trowels, a life-preserver (apparently a cosh of some sort), pistols, a fowling piece (a double-barrelled shotgun) and a Chinese dictionary. He learnt enough Chinese to pass, sometimes, as a native from another province, wearing Chinese clothes and with his head shaved to all but a pigtail. So well in fact, that he able to enter the forbidden city of Souchow (now Wuhsien) unchallenged.

It was not an easy trip. Severe attacks of fever put him out of action at times. He survived storms at sea and typhoons both on land and at sea. Several times he was attacked by robbers and hostile crowds, and a junk on which he was travelling was attacked by pirates. It was here that the fowling piece saved his life. It was then a modern weapon, much more effective than the primitive firearms of the pirates. Fortune lay hidden on deck until the first pirate junk was only twenty yards away, then leapt up, firing both barrels (aiming at the helmsman). After the second pirate junk received the same treatment the others called off the attack.

Fortune made two more trips to China (1853-56, 1858-59) and one trip to Japan (1860-62), and was responsible for the introduction of over 120 species of plants to western gardens.On one of these later trips the East India Company asked him to collect China Tea for growing in India. Once again he disguised himself as Chinese 'from a distant province', hired an interpreter, and headed into the tea growing regions of the country. His efforts resulted in the shipment of well over 20,000 plants and seedlings to the Himalayas. Because of the short viability of tea seeds they had to be germinated on board ship, in the recently invented Wardian Boxes.

He became known as the man who introduced tea into India. But he introduced many other plants from China and Japan, some of them later to be named after him, like the Kumquat (Fortunella), Rhododendron fortunei , and Daphne fortunei . The Japanese trip in 1860 was limited to collecting from local plant nurseries, escorted by troops from his base in the British Legation. On arrival he found a rival, John Veitch, 27 years younger than himself. When he loaded his collection on a ship for England, he found Veitchs collection already aboard. In their memoirs, neither Fortune nor Veitch mentioned the other collector.

He first saw the palm that was to be named for him on the islands of the Chusan Archipelago, off the coast of China. This area was a collectors paradise. When he arrived he saw whole mountains covered in azaleas and he spent the summer of 1844 collecting on the islands. He later sent some young palms via Hong Kong and Calcutta to William Hooker at Kew, with the request that one be sent to Prince Alberts garden on the Isle of Wight. An English television program made in 1992 about the British Royal Gardens features this garden. It shows the Trachycarpus, a tall and healthy palm, which we were told was planted by Queen Victoria herself, on her 32nd birthday in May 1851.

Upon his return to London in May 1846 from his first trip. Robert Fortune published his journals in his first book "Three Years' Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China". It has been noted that during nineteen years of oriental travel he was in England for a total of only five years, yet never hinted in his books that he had left a wife and family at home. However, after his final return he lived comfortably on the proceeds of his book sales, as well as considerable sums of money from the sale of Chinese and Japanese objets dart and he enjoyed a long retirement.

Many plants were named for him, but only one palm, Trachycarpus fortunei.

Contributed by:

Ian Edwards

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