Robert Fortune was born in Edrom near Duns on 16th September 1812. After education locally, he was apprenticed in a local garden with a Mr Buchan. Having learned his trade well, he was soon working at the Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, where he learned under William McNabb, a renowned plantsman. In 1842 he applied for and got the post of Superintendent in the Hothouse department of the Horticultural Society in Chiswick, London.
Soon after, he was granted the position of Society's Collector for China. He was soon on his way to China with a list of requests and little else. Over the next three years he went on plant-hunting excursions into northern China, which at the time was still in the grip of the xenophobia which followed the end of the first Opium war in 1842. Returning home in 1846 he brought with him a vast range of new plants and seeds which were soon being propagated and introduced into gardens around Europe.
He returned to China in 1848 on behalf of the East India Company. This trip was responsible for the extension of the tea industry into north-west India. Fortune collected thousands of tea plants which were replanted in an area where the people were much less aggressive toward the white man. Estates soon developed and the tea industry of India was under way, under the control of the English overlords.
He returned to Britain, again laden with new specimens, before returning to China in 1853, where he stayed until 1858, when he went on to India, collecting plants and shrubs.
He returned again to China seeking, on the American Government's behalf, tea plants which would thrive in the Southern States.
'Fortune's Double Yellow' Rose
He also visited Japan, collecting there.
He retired in 1862 to come back to Scotland and become a farmer.
He died in 1880.
During his time in China, he dressed as a Chinaman, with shaved head and pigtail and became fluent in Mandarin, and was known by the locals as Sing Wah.
His travels he recorded in various publications:
"Three Years Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China" (1847)
"A Journey to the Tea Countries of China" (1852)
"A Residence Among the Chinese" (1857)
"Yedo and Peking" (1863)
He is best remembered today in the plant "Rhododendron fortuneii" and in the Rose "Fortune's Double Yellow", but was responsible for the introduction into Britain and Europe of many hundreds of plant species from the orient.
Newly published is "For All the Tea in China" by Sarah Rose, a biography of Robert Fortune. (ISBN 978-0-0917-9706-5) HB £18.99.
On order through Latimer's Bookshop, Kelso, Mainstreet Trading, St Boswells and other good bookshops.