Not-So-Boring Botanists


April 23, 2016: When one thinks of industrial espionage, which if you're like me is not very often, you probably have an image of high tech or industrial formula theft, not something as mundane as tea. But one of the greatest cases in history of industrial espionage involved tea and how a crusty Scottish botanist, Robert Fortune, stole it and its processing secrets from the Chinese.

By the mid 1800's, the tea drinkers of the British Empire had been enjoying that beverage for a couple hundred years. It came at a very heavy price for tea and how to process it was the sole monopoly of China. Furthermore. the Chinese were very particular in how they would be paid - by silver. No checks, no cash, no byte coin, not even debit cards. British tea importers had to first buy the silver to buy the tea, which was expensive.

The prime British tea importer, the British East India Company, came up with the idea of introducing and selling to the Chinese opium grown in British India in the mid-1700's. They sold it for silver and turned around and bought Chinese tea with it. This worked out well . . . for the British, until some Chinese emperor saw that having an opium addicted populace wasn't all that good a deal and prohibited under severe penalty the usage and trade of opium.

The British, much like their former colonial Americans, became highly insulted by this cavalier act of restricting free trade and proceeded to go to war with China in what was called the First Opium War (1840-1842). Britain won, they forced China to resume trade in opium and they got the port of Hong Kong to boot.

Robert FortuneRobert FortuneEnter Robert Fortune. The British East India Company thought it would be a great idea if they could just bypass the whole Chinese tea connection by growing tea in India. The problem was no one had tea plants nor the knowledge of how to process tea, which, surprisingly, is quite complex. China closely guarded its tea secrets. So in 1846, they sent botanist Robert Fortune to the newly acquired Hong Kong to infiltrate the Chinese tea trade.

Fortune had already been to China three years before on a plant collecting trip. He had developed the art of blending in by adopting Mandarin dress and speech, complete with shaved head and queue (pigtail). Feigning that he was a official from a far off province, Fortune and his interpreter were admitted to tea factories where he observed how green tea and the more highly processed black tea were made. While observing he noticed that the Chinese added two curious components to their tea for export - a chemical called Prussian Blue and gypsum, the major component of plaster. Both of these chemicals were added as colorants to make the green tea look green. The Chinese felt really green green tea was much more marketable to western barbarians. (I wonder if this is the start of our modern day food additive industry?). Both of these chemicals are toxic to the nervous system in lower concentrations over time causing dizziness, confusion, memory loss and irritability and perhaps, dare say I, the proclivity to go to war over the slightest provocations.

Fortune ended up successfully smuggling out the Chinese tea processes, 20,000 tea plants in Wardian cases (miniature greenhouse-like bell jars) and several Chinese tea techs to India, where a thriving tea industry was built that, to this day, produces more tea than China.

You would have thought that once the British Empire got their own tea the trade troubles would have ended. Not so. In 1856, the Second Opium War erupted this time with Britain, America, France and Russia demanding China open up to more free trade and the legalization of opium in the country. They won. Who'd have guessed that a century and half ago there had been a "war for drugs" instead of the current war against them.

Robert Fortune continued with plant collecting trips to Formosa and Japan and introduced to Western gardens such now common plants as chrysanthemums, tree peonies, several species of azaleas and others. In botanical nomenclature, the species name of "fortunei" appears a lot indicating yet another plant introduced to us by the Scot who dressed in Chinese drag.

For more on this, I highly recommend reading the book "For All the Tea in China" by Sarah Rose. There is even a novel written, "The Secret Mandarin" (which is on my to-read list) with Robert Fortune as a major character.

Chinese opium partyChinese opium party
English tea partyEnglish tea party
American tea partyAmerican tea party


March 18, 2012: Of the not-so-boring botanists, none is less boring or more not so boring, in my humble opinion, than the Scottish plant explorer, George Forrest. Called the Indiana Jones of Scotland, he out-Indiana-ed the movie character, and besides what kind of name is “Indiana”? I mean just how exciting and adventuresome is the Hoosier state, really?

George Forrest was born in Scotland in 1873. He was one of a handful of plant hunters that participated in the golden age of the professional plant hunter.

There are thousands of species of plants to be found in gardens across North America and Europe that came from China. Southwest China has a climate not so dissimilar to the UK and temperate North America (and in particular the Pacific Northwest). Until 1860, China was closed to foreigners . As the interior of China began opening up to western missionaries and diplomats , they began discovering and shipping home plants unknown to western gardens. Long before there were Chinese electronics or running shoes in our homes, there were Chinese plants in our gardens. There’s an excellent chance that there’s a rhododendron, azalea or primula in your garden right now that’s Chinese in origin. There are over 900 species of rhododendrons that originate in the Far East, as opposed to 4 from Europe and 27 from North America.

From 1860 to around 1890, most of the plant collection and introductions were done by amateurs – missionaries, diplomats, doctors , and the like. In the 1890’s, a professional breed of plant collector, the commercial plant hunter, arrived in China. These were botanists in the paid employ of arboreta, commercial nurseries, and wealthy patrons and were sent into the remotest areas of the Far East to discover and return with new plants. The wildest, remotest and most dangerous of these areas was southwestern China, where it borders Tibet , Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam – the province of Yunnan.

After spending 10 years as a miner in the Australian gold rush, George Forrest was employed by a wealthy English cotton merchant to lead a plant hunting expedition to the wilderness border of Yunnan and Tibet. In 1904, he arrived at the town of Talifu in Yunnan and spent the next 6 months organizing the expedition and learning the language and customs of the native people. He had a genuine respect of the people of the region, going so far as inoculating thousands of people out of his own pocket when a smallpox epidemic broke out.

The next year, Forrest lead his expedition further into the mountains near the Tibet border. I can tell you from personal experience (of watching a YouTube), these mountains aren’t for creampuffs. Narrow, deep gorges; steep, thickety mountain slopes and extremes in weather that range from permanent ice fields to tropical monsoons that make trekking through this region an arduous task. It also makes this area one of the greatest centers of plant diversity on the planet. Of the 30,000 species of higher plants found throughout China, 17,000 exist in Yunnan of which 2500 are endemic to the province. For a commercial plant hunter , that makes a gold mine.

Gold has its hazards in mining and plant gold, in this instance, had an army of bloodthirsty Tibetan warrior priests intent on gouging out George’s eyes and every other foreigner at the moment. In the year before Forrest started his expedition, the British in India invaded Tibet. Tibet (then a nominal Chinese protectorate) had refused to trade with Great Britain and wanted to be left alone. No one should be allowed to be left alone and the obvious solution to the British was to invade the country and kill a whole bunch of people, which they did and it worked. Tibet was brought to its knees and signed an exclusive trade agreement. Later, the British realized that Tibet really didn’t have a lot of stuff that the British were interested in trading for, but that’s not the point, it’s the principle.

As a landscape contractor, winter sales are usually slow. I thought, though only briefly mind you, what if I used the British approach to trade in my business? Maybe I could show up outside a prospective client’s house with a field howitzer. “Give me the contract to your landscape work, or I’ll blow it and your family up!’ That might just be the solution to the winter doldrums most landscape businesses have, but on further cogitation I concluded it might not be the best sales ploy. Bad for word of mouth and Angies List referrals. Might work for big countries, but probably not for small businesses. . . . . Let me just take this opportunity to assure to my past, current and future customers that I pledge never to show up at your home with a howitzer and would further recommend to you that you never hire any other landscape contractor that does. . . . but I digress.

So, unbeknownst to Forrest, he has now entered an area filled with bent-out-of-shape Buddhists and as stories begin streaming in of atrocities and massacres of foreigners and Chinese Christian converts , it becomes clear it’s much too hot for picking primulas. It’s time to get out. Forrest, along with 2 French Jesuit priests, and a group of Chinese (about 80 in number) make a break to far off Talifu. . . but it is too late. The escape path is blocked and a horde of screaming, painted Tibetan lamas descend on the party. Only 2 escape, one of which is George Forrest. The 2 French priests were captured and tortured for 4 days before dying.

Forrest spends the next three weeks evading the rampaging rinpoches and their ferocious Tibetan mastiffs Travelling alone and living off of whatever he could forage, he traversed snow cap mountains and ice fields, through near impenetrable rhododendron thickets, up and down and up and down and sometimes backtracking when he ran into a patrol. He eventually made it to a native village where the local chieftain took pity on him and disguised him as a Tibetan. In this disguise, he eventually reached the safety of the Chinese town of Talifu.

Having an army of crazed zealots wanting to dismember you out of anger, or perhaps to encourage trade, would cause the average person to give up on plant hunting and turn to say, bargain hunting on Craigslist instead, but not George Forrest. It seems he spent no more time in Talifu recuperating from his ordeals than it takes to have a couple of stiff drinks and some Chinese haggis and then he set out on another plant hunting expedition the other way towards Burma. This time he went with an Englishman, George Litton. Their two months of slogging through insect ridden jungles resulted in Litton contracting malaria and dying on return. But the plant hunting season wasn’t done and there was no time for moping or mourning for Forrest. He set out again on another hunting expedition. This time back towards Tibet! Maybe those lethal lamas had gotten it all out of their systems by then. Other than catching malaria on the trip, no further drama occurred.

George Forrest returned to China for 6 more expeditions. He discovered 1200 new plants to science. Those included new rhododendron, azalea, primrose, hemerocallis (daylily), iris, camellia, buddleia, berberis, aster, deutzia, allium, acer (maple) and conifer species that are found in our gardens today.

It seems George was more into doing than he was into talking. He wrote very little narrative about his exploits. He claimed he would do that in his retirement. Between his last expedition and starting his own retirement web blog, Forrest dropped dead of a massive heart attack while hunting in the Chinese bush in 1932.

For those of us in the green trade with timid and unexciting lives, George Forrest’s exploits are an inspiration to live near the edge. Most of my plant hunting expeditions are to my local nurseries. But . . sometimes when strolling through the rhododendron section . . . . .I can feel eyes watching me. Is that a Tibetan headdress poking out the top of that Rhododendron giganteum? Good God! Does that sales associate approaching me have a Tibetan war axe in their hand? Quick! I’ll hide under these Primula malacoides on the bargain bench. I will survive this nursery visit! I will get out alive!


February 26, 2012:When you think of a botanist do think of Indiana Jones? Probably not. More likely you have an image of a frail bespectacled man or woman skipping through meadows with a notebook under one arm and a plant press under the other. Horse poppies, I say! Many of the botanists of yore were rough and tumble, true grit plant hunters that walked into the unexplored wilds of the world seeking to find new plants for science or profit or both. With a rifle in one hand and pruning shears in the other , they plumbed the depths of the trackless wilderness to bring us many of the beautiful garden plants that we know and love today. These weren’t shrinking violets, they were gardeners with guts, they were not so boring botanists.

If you’re proud to be an American, then we can thank your red, white and blueblood to America’s first botanists, the Bartrams, father John and son William. They’re botanical efforts led to the American Revolution and our freedom . . . well, kinda, sorta, if you look at it in a certain way. I’ll explain later.

John Bartram, born 1699, was a Quaker and a farmer. He had no formal education, but a passion for the study of plants, particularly medicinal plants. His farm, located near Philadelphia, was the staging center for John’s plant hunting trips into the American wilderness and became a nursery facility for introducing the plants he found into circulation.

Two circumstances created the means of independence by which John Bartram could free himself from his farm and make extended trips into the American interior. One was a gardening revolution going on in England. The very formal manicured gardens of the nobility were on their way out and the new trend was more open pastoral landscapes and informal plantings. The rich and famous now wanted exotic plants for their estates and those plants would come from North America. John Bartram made a connection with a wealthy merchant in England and agreed to ship seeds and plant specimens he found to him and soon his market grew into scores of rich patrons. The international nurseryman now had the time and resources to travel and he journeyed to Lake Ontario, Ohio and Florida, all rather loosely mapped wilderness at the time.

When his son, William grew of age he joined his father on his expeditions. Father John was made Ye Royal Botanist for the King in North America in 1765 and father and son celebrated by taking a trip to Florida, which at that time had no Howard Johnsons’ nor Interstate 95. As they were roaming Florida and South Georgia they came across a group of trees on an island in the Altamaha River that they had never seen before. These small (up to 20’) trees bear attractive white flowers with brilliant orange stamens in the center. With no record of this species, they named it the Franklinia tree (Franklinia altamaha), after Benjamin Franklin, a friend of John Bartram. No other trees than that small grove of Franklinia were ever found anywhere else. The last reported sighting of a wild Franklinia was in 1804 in the Altamaha river valley. Nothing else since. They are now extinct in the wild.

All the Franklinia that are in landscapes and nurseries today are descendents of the seeds from a few trees that the Bartrams collected. Here’s the odd thing. Franklinia will not grow in the Altamaha valley or in other semi-tropical climates similar. It needs colder climes. The Pacific Northwest is a good spot. Franklinia is not an easy tree to grow. I’ve propagated seeds pretty easily but planted trees don’t grow exuberantly, or at least that’s what I’ve seen from the one I have planted. It’s believed that the last wild population of Franklinia were survivors from the last Ice Age. As the ice cap retreated and the climate grew warmer it’s been hypothesized that what was once an abundant plant dwindled down to a handful of individuals waiting for the Bartrams to find them. Pretty amazing, but not as amazing as how the Bartrams started the Revolutionary War.

Remember I told you that the lastest rage in England was planting North American plants on the gentry’s estates? No less a gentry than Frederick, Prince of Wales, the heir apparent to the throne of King George II, was knee deep in planting his estate with American trees. The story goes that in 1760 the prince was planting a batch of American trees supplied by the Bartrams when a sudden rainstorm developed. The prince refused to leave the field until the planting was done and subsequently caught pneumonia and died. Another version has him dying of a lung abcess after being hit in the chest with a cricket ball during a match, but we conspiracy theorists believe that, if true, it was one of the Bartrams playing that day. Neither the English government nor the American government, to this day, will acknowledge the Bartrams’ role as hitmen.

How does this start a war you wonder? Well Frederick was a very liberal fellow. He was an accomplished musician, a patron of the arts, and opposed the Gin Laws, England’s early attempts at Prohibition. A live and let live kind of guy. When he died, the new successor to the throne , George II’s grandson, George III, was not such a mellow chap. King George 3 was the guy that riled up the colonials by his heavy handedness and incited them to rebellion. Historians and landscape contractors suffering from Sunday boredom hypothesize that, if Frederick had lived and gained the throne, his gentler touch may have kept the colonies intact and we would still be British subjects today.

John Bartram, at 70, decided he’d tuckered out from all his travelling and camping and retired to the family nursery. At his farm he entertained Ben Franklin and George Washington and other notables. He proposed to Franklin the idea of sending a plant hunting expedition into the American West. Franklin, it is said, passed the idea along to Thomas Jefferson and thirty years later – Lewis and Clark. John Bartram died in 1777.

William Bartram, being younger and less tired, continued his plant explorations with a 4 year long trek through the Southeast (North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama). He was a Rouseau-like “natural man” character. Disappearing for months on end going alone into the wilderness and then suddenly showing up on the coast to send specimens back to Philadelphia. He had no fear of Indians or the wild creatures of swamp and forest, except for alligators. It is said that after he came back from the Southeastern wilderness he was plagued by nightmares of alligators for the rest of his life.

William Bartram extensively traveled through the southern Appalachians including the Smoky Mountains. There’s a hiking trail that follows some of his route from North Georgia to Wayah Bald in North Carolina, the Bartram Trail. Much of the area that the trail runs through I had worked as a forestry contractor in the early 80’s. Mountainsides steeper than a horse’s face, valley’s so narrow the dogs have to wag their tails up and down, slicks of laurel and rhododendron thicker than the hair on a hound’s back, it’s no Sunday amble to traverse this area by trail today. I can’t imagine bushwhacking your way across it 200 years ago. Billy Bartram, as they say in the mountains, must have been “hard as hackwood”.

After William returned to the family farm from the Southeast, he never went adventuring again. He spent his remaining years in the family nursery business and doing botanical illustrations. William was an accomplished artist and the foremost nature illustrator of the time before Audubon. William died in 1823. The nursery was run by successive generations of Bartrams until 1850 when it was sold off. The city of Philadelphia now owns it and has restored it into a historical park, Bartram’s Gardens.

There you have it. Another of the lives of the Not-So-Boring Botanists. Stay tuned next time for . . . George Forrest and the Attack of the Bloodthirsty Tibetan Lamas!.


April 24, 2010: This is the amazing, thrilling, yet true tale of a plant hunter! (Alright! So I changed the topic a wee bit from last time! You gotta problem with that?). That plant hunter, gentle reader, was the Scot David Douglas, who introduced 240 species of Pacific Northwest, Californian and Hawaiian plants to European botany. (Native-American botany had already known them for a millennium or so). His name is preserved in the Douglas fir tree, 80 Latin botanical names, and a high school in Portland, OR.

David Douglas was a botanist and pretty interesting guy. He is said to be North America’s first mountaineer , someone who climbs a mountain just for the hell of it, by climbing Mt. Brown in the Canadian Rockies. His plant hunting journeys in the Pacific Northwest, 1824-1827, introduced Salal, Sitka spruce, Ponderosa pine, California poppy, grand fir, and numerous other native plants that we use in the landscape today.

Plant hunting, though, is not a vocation for shrinking violets. ( I believe that was pun). It’s dirty, long hours, devoid of any 4 star lodgings or Wi-fi connections, and dangerous and it was David Douglas that finally met his demise in pursuit of plants. It was a death that gardeners and plants people have had immortal dread of since time immemorial. . . . . being gored to death by a wild bull in a pit. To the gardener and plants person, the digging of a planting hole is like an act of birth, the beginning of a new life in a new location for our leafy friend. But just like that ying and yang symbol where’s there is black inside the white and white inside the black, that hole taken to the most horrible extreme could also be one’s grave. Poor David Douglas, while walking a trail in Hawaii (he was working and not on vacation), slipped and fell into a capture pit that already contained a wild bullock, which proceeded to gore him to death . . .or so the story goes. For years afterwards, people wondered how an experienced trekker like David Douglas could be so clumsy as to fall into a pit in broad daylight. There were no witnesses when it happened and the last person to see him was a wild bullock hunter and escaped convict he had had lunch with. Native Hawaiians, years afterwards, said it was the hunter, Ned Gurney, who had killed Douglas for his purse of gold and thrown him in the pit to cover up the murder. We will never know for sure.

As a landscaper, I dig many holes. The cautionary tale of David Douglas makes me ever wary around my planting holes. I either plant in them or cover them up. I live on the edge of the Coast Range and granted there have never been any wild bullocks sighted around here, there are other wild things, like beaver ,for one. I have two in my pond. The thought of walking out my house one dark night and accidently falling into a planting pit to find a rabid beaver there . . . .well, it’s too terrible a thought to share here.

That is the amazing, thrilling, yet true tale of David Douglas. And the moral of that tale, gentle gardener, is to never leave your planting pits open and choose your planting company wisely.

F & P