The Life Of Robert Fortune
Simone and Rolf Schilling, Mollusk, VA.
Reprinted from New York Chapter Newsletter
Robert Fortune was born in Kelloe, Scotland, in 1813. Although he had little formal schooling, his spirit of adventure led him to a remarkable career as a botanist, explorer, adventurer, and man of letters.
England was wealthy during Queen Victoria's reign and the rising middle class of well-to-do merchants and their wives were keen and competitive gardeners, each eager to be the first in his neighborhood to have new and spectacular garden and greenhouse plants. The nurserymen and seed dealers who sold to them sent plant explorers all over the world in search of new and showy flowers. In this way, many plants came to us that today are taken for granted as old familiar friends.
Fortune began his career as an assistant gardener at the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens; he then moved to London and got a job at the Garden of the Royal Horticultural Society at Chiswick.
Just at that time (the year was 1842), the Chinese had finally opened a number of their ports to foreign visitors and the Society at once decided to send Robert Fortune to collect plants and to gather information on such subjects as raising silk worms, growing tea plants, and dwarfing trees - subjects about which the Chinese were acknowledged masters.
Fortune's first glimpse of China came on the 6th of July 1843 after a four month sea voyage. Chusan, the first port he visited in China, delighted him. The people were courteous and friendly, were excellent gardeners, and easily learned how to make the glass Wardian cases - miniature green houses in which he shipped his living specimens to Chiswick, four months and 6000 miles away. His first ship included a wealth of new plant material, among it some spectacular azaleas, several clematis, and a yellow climbing rose to which he gave his name.
Most of the first winter he spent on the east coast studying the language and habits of the country. He began to master the Chinese art of dwarfing trees, pruning the roots, and starving the plant so that a tree might grow only a few inches in a century.
In the spring, Fortune returned to Hong Kong to see that his plants were properly packed and shipped. Then he went north to country seen by few Europeans before him, usually stopping in Buddhist monasteries. At first he disliked the monks. But as he got to know them better, he gradually became quite fond of them - respecting them for their deep love of all living things (especially plants) and their great skill, which produced magnificent specimens despite the poor soil, limited fertilizer, and fierce climate.
During the two summers he spent in the north, Fortune studied the cultivation and preparation of tea plants. His careful reports led to the introduction of tea planting into the hill country of northwest India and the growth of a great new industry there. Some years later he attempted to do the same thing for the U.S. Government, which was considering the growing of tea in the south, but the project was abandoned because of the great amount of labor required.
During Fortune's travels into the interior of China, until recently a region off limits to foreign travelers, he had many narrow escapes. He disguised himself as a Chinese, darkening his skin, and wore a wig with a long pigtail.
In October 1845, ill with fever and exhaustion, Fortune sailed from Hong Kong for England; his ship reached its destination the following May. His plants survived the long voyage in excellent health, and almost all of them were successfully grown in the gardens and greenhouses at Chiswick.
Twice again Fortune went to the Far East, to hunt plants in the Philippines, China, and Japan. His travels had been so profitable that he was able to buy a farm in Scotland to which he retired; but he found that he missed London, and he returned there, where he died in 1880. His last article, published a few months before his death, listed more than 150 plants he had successfully brought home from the Orient. Among them are the azalea, camellia, chrysanthemum, cinnamon rose, flowering cherry, hydrangea, iris, kumquat, lily, magnolia, narcissus, peony, poppy, and rhododendron - to name but a few.
No wonder we gardeners come across the botanical term with the name "Fortune" in our seed and plant catalogs so frequently.
This interesting article on the life of Robert Fortune came to us from Simone and Rolf Shilling. They are New Yorkers who moved to Virginia and took their garden with them. Finding the soil had too much clay, they have purchased a second piece of property, better suited for rhododendrons and azaleas, and have just finished transplanting 2600 azalea plants.