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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.

Painting of mountains, people and elephants Fortune travelled – illegally – to parts of China that few Europeans had ever seen. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

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.

Robert Fortune kumquat Fortune introduced many new trees, plants and flowers to Europe, including the kumquat. (Credit: JLPC / Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Tea plants Fortune spent many months in China learning about tea growing and production. He was the first westerner to discover that green and black tea are made from the same plant. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

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.

Engraving of the cemetery chapel glimpsed through trees Fortune is one of several well-known gardeners buried at Brompton. This part of London was once famous for its nurseries, and the cemetery was built on land formerly used as a market garden. (Credit: Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea)

Further information

Robert Fortune’s grave

The pink granite stone on Fortune’s family grave was added in 2010. It was paid for by his descendants and other supporters. (Credit: Greywolf)

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