Book celebrates Robert Fortune, the plant hunter who forever changed our gardens


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“The greatest plant hunter of the 19th century” died more than 130 years ago, but you can still find his plants – chrysanthemums, gardenias, mandarins, cumquats and peonies among them – in just about every nursery.

In a new book on Robert Fortune, Alistair Watt dispels some of the myths surrounding this pioneering Scot, who was known for travelling foreign lands and returning with previously unseen plant species, along with still-popular varieties of tea.

Watt, also a Scottish-born plant hunter who lives in the Victorian town of Lavers Hill, has written a biography addressing Fortune’s role in the history of tea and a plethora of other plants collected in the Far East. Robert Fortune: A Plant Hunter in the Orient is the first full account of the life of this son of a farm labourer.

Watt, whose extensive research included retracing Fortune’s travels in China, says he was brave, highly intelligent and ahead of his time – and not the tea thief some thought him to be. He spoke several Chinese dialects and through his trips to China, Japan and Taiwan, introduced about 280 plant species and varieties into Britain, India and the US. Many species were quickly dispatched to Australia thanks to our accommodating climate.

While some collectors disseminated more plants, Watt says Fortune’s were of a “greater and more long-lasting quality”. Buddha’s Hand Citron, Rosa rugosa, Raphiolepis umbellata, Trachycarpus fortunei and Akebia quinata are just some of the popular offerings he collected. In the mid-1840s, he was also one of the first to bring rapeseed into Britain and, while he described how the Chinese extracted its oil, it was another 150 years before the idea took hold.

But Fortune didn’t stop at plants. He also acquired insects, reptiles and oriental antiques, including Chinese porcelain for which he had a special passion.

Fortune’s first expedition to China was in 1843, soon after the end of the First Opium War, when resentment towards the British ran high and there were extensive travel restrictions in place. He adopted Chinese disguise to travel hundreds of kilometres outside those areas officially open to him, sowing seeds directly into sealed glass cases that protected them from the vagaries of the weather at sea.

Watt, who has had a hand in importing 240-odd plants to Australia, says he understands Fortune’s compulsion to collect. Watt started collecting plants in 1985, and has increased the diversity of what we see growing on our own turf. His trips to Chile, Fiji, New Caledonia and New Zealand (between 1985 and 2000) brought new and rare conifers to his Otway Ridge Arboretum. The Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney also benefited, adding many new species to its Araucaria lawn; the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne was able to establish its New Caledonian bed; and the Geelong Botanical Gardens has cultivated a wider range of plants, thanks to his work.

“While some people who only grow local native plants would argue against me completely, my own thought is that what makes some of our old gardens so special is the diversity of plants,” Watt says.

But he says ever-tightening quarantine rules and a new international protocol on biological diversity have made it difficult to move plants between countries. This means “we will lose plants and won’t be able to replace them”, he says.

It also makes Fortune’s plant-collecting expeditions across dramatic landscapes filled with beguiling new plants seem like another world entirely.

Robert Fortune: A Plant Hunter in the Orient, Kew Publishing, $95, will be released this month and be available at selected bookshops. Alistair Watt will speak about his travels, and those of Robert Fortune, for the Australian Garden History Society on May 18, 6pm for 6.30pm, $25, AGHS members $20, students $10.

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