Robert Fortune (1812-1880)
The plant hunter who successfully smuggled tea plants out of China.
This remarkable Scottish horticulturalist is remembered for making four intrepid plant-hunting expeditions to China, even though the country was mostly forbidden to Westerners in the middle of the 19th century. He also travelled to Japan.
Fortune was searching for trees, shrubs, bulbs and perennials that would thrive in Britain, on behalf of the Horticultural Society in London. He brought back around 120 species that have become popular garden essentials, including forsythia, winter jasmine and wisteria.
He also unearthed the secrets of Chinese tea cultivation. Working for the British East India Company, Fortune smuggled 20,000 tea plants and seedlings out of China. He took them to India, along with a group of Chinese tea masters who shared their expertise there. This was the first step towards popularising the great British cuppa.
Between his trips to the Far East, Fortune was appointed curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden. He also wrote a series of books about his adventures.