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Plant exchange

Though Western traders and adventurers had visited Asia, it was Venician merchant Marco Polo (1254-1324) who would be remembered for his record of a 24-year journey to the Orient that lasted from 1271 to 1295.

China was technologically in advance of Europe at this time and his chronicle of this epic journey, which spread rapidly through Europe in manuscript form as The Travels of Marco Polo, served as inspiration to later explorers like Chrisopher Columbus. As a merchant he was especially aware of the fabulous Asian wealth, his observations on plants being focused on those with economic potential:

Among the plants mentioned by Polo are the woods of Box in Georgia; Cotton at Mosul; the best Dates in the world at Bassora; Rice, Pomegranates, and Lemons at Ormuz; Almonds and Pistachio Nuts on the Oxus; Sesame oil in Badakshan; Cotton, Linen, and Hemp in Kashgar; Bamboos a foot and a half in diameter, and Ginger on the Hoang-ho. The celebrated Chinese drug Ginseng (Panax ginseng) is mentioned as well known (though not often seen by Polo himself in China), its supposed virtues being perhaps merely due to an occasional forking of the root, as in the Mandrake. Cotton, Ginger, and Sugar-cane in Bengal; Rhubarb in Tungut; Ebony in Cochin-China; Pepper, Nutmeg, and Cloves in Borneo; Brazilwood (Casalpinia sappan L.) in Cambodia and Sumatra; Rice, Coconuts, and Camphor also in Sumatra; Sandalwood in the Nicobars; the Plantain (Musa paradisiaca L.) in the Andaman Islands; and the Betel-Pepper (Piper betle) in Madras.

Baron von Mueller

Kew Pagoda – Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London – 2006

Constructed by Sir William Chambers in 1761
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Targeman – Accessed 9 March 2018

Plant introduction to the West from China

Cunninghame (1698); Ternstroem (1735); d’Incarville (1740); Osbeck (1750); Torin (1753); Haxton, Main (First Diplomatic Mission) (1792); Kerr (1804); Abel (Second Diplomatic Mission) (1816); Potts (1821); Parks (1823); Fortune (1843); Jean Soulié (1860-1900); David (1862); Delavay (1867); Henry (1881); Potanin (1884); Paul Farges (1892-1903); Wilson (1899); Forrest (1904); Meyer (1905); Purdom (1909); Kingdon-Ward (1911); Farrer (1914); Rock (1922).

In Western gardens today it is Chinese plants that stand out, both in their numbers and beauty. The historical attraction of the orient to European plant hunters becomes clear when it is realized that the number of native vascular plants from China’s varied climates today numbers about 31,000 – compared to about 20,000 in Australia and a meagre 1400 in Britain.

Well before the 19th century, plants depicted in Chinese paintings, textiles and ceramics had caught the eyes of European plant collectors. Captains of East India Company tea-clippers putting in to Canton (Guangzhou) were begged to bring these home. Foreign officials could live in Canton while the merchant fleet was visiting, otherwise they were to live on the island of Macau. Better-known among these were John Livingstone, Thomas Beale, and John Reeves (a company tea inspector) who were all keen gardeners that lived there for more than 20 years, Reeves especially opening an immediate communication with Banks and returning 100 living plants to the Horticultural Society when on leave in 1816, and many plant illustrations completed by Chinese artists now known as the Reeves Collection.

1700-1755 – Coastal ports and environs

Benjamin Torin had become a resident in 1753 and in 1770 returned to Kew a cargo of plants that included Daphne odora, Osmanthus fragrans, Cordyline terminalis and Murraya exotica (now M. paniculata). John and Alexander Duncan who were surgeons in the company in the years 1782-1796 so sent plants to Banks at Kew.

Staunton’s gardeners collected about 220 specimens and 7-8 novelties including Macleaya cordata and Rosa bracteata.

Physician Abel’s team amassed many plant specimens, Hooper assembling living plants and 300 packets of seed but much was lost when the ship ran aground before the trip home which included an audience with Napoleon on St Helena. Abelia chinensis (A. x grandiflora) was one of the few survivors.

1780-1825 – Macao & Canton

Even in the early 19th century the British demand for Chinese plants greatly exceeded supply. This prompted the appointment of gardeners specific to the task. Gilbert Slater (influential in the company, owning several of its ships) who wanted specific plants for his Essex garden, sent out three gardeners, the only one to return being his Scottish foreman James Main. Banks sent William Kerr and The Horticultural Society sent John Potts and John Parks.

James Main – c. 1775-1846

A Scottish botanist-gardener of Edinburgh. His trip to China, overseen by Banks, was funded by wealthy plantation owner George Hibbert (1757-1837) a Fellow of the Royal Society (1811) and Linnean Society whose gardener Joseph Knight was probably the first to cultivate Proteaceae in England. According to chronicler Loudon ‘The collection of heaths, Banksias, and other Cape and Botany Bay plants, in Hibbert’s garden, was most extensive, and his flower-garden one of the best round the metropolis’. He is commemorated in the genus Hibbertia. Main also experimented, for the Loddiges nursery, with different methods of plant storage aboard ship. He met up with Kew’s Masson at the Cape, and in Canton Stronach and Haxton but was not allowed to visit the famous Fa Te nurseries. By this time he considered the camellias bred in Europe superior to those available in China. His ship, HMS Triton, set sail for England in 1794 with the members of the second Macartney expedition. Main had made many plant collections including a host of live plants but a collision in the Channel meant that he had no record of what happened to his and other plants but survived as assistant writer to Loudon’s Gardener’s Magazine.

William Kerr – d. 1815

A Scottish gardener at Kew who was sent to China by Banks in 1804 as the first resident professional collector, remaining for 8 years and returning to Britain from Canton, Macao, Cochinchina, and Manila. Kerr established European plants in China, sent plants to not only Kew but Calcutta and St Helena, eventually appointed superintendant of the Colombo Botanic garden in Ceylon where he died in 1814, probably a consequence of opium addiction. In Macau alone he supplied samples of 238 plants new to European gardeners and science (129 of wild species he collected himself). Banks was especially interested in the use of plants for cordage and fibre.(C. pp. 98-101).

From the Horticultural Society came John Potts in 1821-2 returning after one year and followed by John Parks in 1823-4 who returned with chrysanthemum and Camellia reticulata varieties and Aspidistra lurida. Both were assisted by Reeves and Beale in Macao.

The events of the Opium War of 1840-2 put an end to collecting for about 20 years. But the British had taken Hong Kong, occupied the beautiful islands of Chusan, and gained trade access to Amoy, Foo-chow, Ning-po and Shanghai. Reeves, who had returned to England in 1831 persuaded the Horticultural Society to reinvigorate the collecting.

1843-1860 – Northern China

Plants sent to Europe from Northern China included those supplied by resident collectors.

Robert Fortune – 1812-1880

A Scotsman employed at the in the hothouse of the Society gardens in Chiswick after extensive training at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh
volunteered and was given an extensive list of possible introductions compiled by Reeves and paid the standard £100 p.a. setting up base in Hong Kong where he was assisted by the well-established sons of Reeves and Beale, the latter Thomas Beale having a fine garden in Shanghai.(C. p.102) His explorations were mainly around the treaty ports and north China. He returned with a fine collection of plants, accepted the post of Curator at the Chelsea Physic Garden, and published his travelogue Three Years Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China (1847).

His second visit to China was as an employee of the East India Company seeking to procure tea varieties for the plantations that were then being established in India at Sikkim and Assam but he managed to also collect garden plants, housed temporarily in Beale’s garden including seed of the funeral cypress Cupressus funebris. No longer answerable to the Horticultural Society his plants were distributed to nurserymen.

A third, less eventful trip for the company lasted from 1852-56, then a fourth, again related to tea, from 1858-9 for the American Government. With the Indian rebellion and winding up of the East India Company in 1858 the plantations deteriorated along with Fortunes teas which were eventually replaced by the Indian Assam variety.

Bretschneider estimated that he introduced about 190 new species and varieties of which about 120 were new and probably ignored the many garden cultivars.

Coates (p. 110) remarks that Fortune was a man of his times: he deplored heathen Buddhism trusting in the success of Christian missionaries; he was devoted to Queen and country while being convinced of his own moral superiority – that Chinese were his superiors in number only; in his journals he did not mention his wife and family or any correspondence with them.

1860-1922 – Western China

War broke out again between China against England, France, Russia, and America in 1857, concluding in 1860 and opening yet more ports to trade. Access to inland regions launched a new phase of horticultural exploration that moved from northern into Western China.

Armand David – 1826-1900

David was a French naturalist who went to Pekin as a missionary in 1862. Interest in his specimens, mostly zoological, sent to the Paris Museum of Natural History prompted his three scientific expeditions into Mongolia – 1866, 1868-69, 1872-74. Returning to France he found more than 80 species grown from seed collected by him and growing in the Paris Museum gardens. His collections included many species of rhododendron, gentian, and primula. He is commemorated in the genus Davidia. Director Franchet hadreceived1577 specimens from him, about 250 new to science and published in Plantae Davidianae (1884).

Jean Delavay (1838-1895) a French missionary

who collected plants for Henry Hance of the British consular service in Canton and Hong Kong. Returning to Paris in 1881 and meeting David and the Director of the Paris Museum René Franchet, Delavay was persuaded to send future collections to Paris. This initiated a flood of specimens as Delavay sent 200,000 specimens of more than 4000 species, about 150 new augmented by those of other missionaries Farges (c. 4000; 1892-1903) and Soulié (c. 7000; 1890-1905). On a second visit Delavay was stationed in near Tali-fu in Yunnan. It is likely that more garden plants were introduced to the West by Delavay than by any other botanist.

Paul Farges (1844-1912) French missionary

on the NE border of Szechuan from 1892-1903 sent specimens to the Paris Museum and, like Delavay and Soulié, sent seed to nurseryman Maurice de Vilmorin (whose nursery was in a Paris suburb and estate that was a former hunting lodge of Louis XIV of France) .

Jean Soulié (1858-1905) a medical missionary

who collected on the border of Tibet.

In the period 1860 to 1900 Russia undertook several scientific expeditions: Przewalski and Komarof in Turkestan, Tibet and Manchuria and Potanin to Mongolia. Potanin made two horticulturally important expeditions to Western China in 1884 and 1893.

Grigori Potanin (1835-1920) student political rebel

he redeemed himself to be financed by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society to Western China from 1884 to 1886, taking his botanist wife who helped prepare the haul of 12,000 specimens representing about 4000 species. A second expedition was mounted in 1893 with about 10,000 specimens collected as well as seed and drug plants.

Augustine Henry (1857-1930) was an Irish medical student from Belfast

who became a Medical Officer and Assistant Inspector of Customs in 1881, first in Shanghai and then Ichang in 1882. His official recording of medicinal plants generated an interest in botany, correspondence with Kew, and the collection of specimens. In the first year he sent 1000 specimens including 10 new genera to Director Thistleton-Dyer who found funds to support a couple of expeditions which produced a rich harvest for later Western gardens. He also gained the assistance of Chinese collectors.

Ernest Wilson (1876-1930) was a gardener trained at Hewitt’s Nursery Solihull and Birmingham Botanic Gardens then in 1897 to Kew

The Harry Veitch nursery in Coombe Wood employed him for 6 months and on the advice of Thistleton-Dyer sent him out to China in 1899 via America’s Arnold Arboretum where he was to learn about plant transportation and meet the famous Professor Sargent. Though instructed to concentrate on obtaining seed of Davidia he collected many more horticultural gems mostly in the steps of Henry. In a second season of collecting (1901) he sent back 35 cases of bulbs and roots, and over 900 herbarium specimens, returning to Coombe Wood in 1902. A second trip to the West followed but when he returned in 1905 the Veitch nursery was in decline, winding up in 1914. In the meantime a third expedition was sponsored by Harvard University and Sargent, emigrating to America to eventually become Keeper of the Arnold Arboretum. A fourth expedition followed in 1910. His novel introductions number over a thousand. His travelogue appeared in 1913 A Naturalist in Western China.

George Forrest (1873-1932) a Scotsman trained as a chemist

who roved in Australia before joining the herbarium staff at Edinburgh where he worked for two years before setting off on his Chinese assignment in 1904. Forrest managed to employ teams of people during his exploration, which enabled him to send back 200 pounds of seed of 400-600 species and about 3000 herbarium specimens. He was able to exploit the craze for rhododendrons that was sweeping Western horticulture at this time, the English Rhododendron Society founded in 1915. His Chinese journeys spanned 28 years specializing in rock garden and alpine plants, especially primulas and rhododendrons. His impact was vast. He died on the last of his journeys in 1932, this expedition alone amassing at least 300 lb of seed representing 400-500 species.

Arthur Bulley now required another collector and this time Balfour recommended:

Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958) an Englishman who had taught in Shanghai and had experience on expeditions.

His life of botanizing for 50 years included around 25 expeditions through Tibet, North Western China, Myanmar and Assam (NE India).




Xia dynasty 夏朝         -   2070–1600
Shang dynasty 商朝   -   1600–1046
Zhou dynasty 周朝)    -   1046–256
No title Son of Heaven - 256 to 221
Qin dynasty 秦朝        -    221–207


W'stn Han d'y 漢朝 - 202 BCE–25 CE
Xin dynasty 新朝         -    9–23
Eastern Han dynasty  -    25–220
Three Kingdoms 三國 -  220–280
Jin dynasty 晉朝           -  266–420
16 Kingdoms 十六國   -  304–439
N & S dynas's 南北朝  -  386–589
Sui dynasty 隋朝          -  581–619
Tang d'y 唐朝 - 618–690, 705–907
5 dy's & 10 kd's 五代十國 - 907–979
Liao dynasty 遼朝        -  916–1125
N'thn Song d'y 宋朝    -   960–1127
Southern Song 宋朝   -  1127-1279
Liao Dynasty               -     907-1125
Western Xia 西夏        -  1038–1227
Jin dynasty 金朝          -  1115–1234
Yuan dynasty 元朝     -  1271–1368
Ming dynasty 明朝     -  1368–1644
Qing dynasty 清朝     -   1636–1912
Empire of China 中華帝國
-   1915–1916
Taiping Rebellion      -   1850 - 1864
Republic                      -   1912-1949

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