F is for Fortunei

by Norman Todd – March, 2001


There is a hoary, lichen-covered story about a rhododendron gardener reminiscing on his long past experiences.  He sighs: ‘I don’t remember the name of the town; I don’t remember the name of the wine; I don’t even remember the name of the girl.  But the tree we sat under was Rhododendron Fortunei.


No doubt in our reminiscer’s memory, it was the heady, sweet aroma that was stimulating his synapses.  However, R. Fortunei is prized for more than its fragrance.  It has the stature of a small tree; it is Clintonesque hardy and has been used extensively in hybridizing, being one of the parents of such beauties as the ‘Loderis’.  It has a big truss.


The name commemorates Robert Fortune, a man who broke a lacuna of horticultural exploration in south-east Asia, and particularly China, in the early-to-mid 1800’s.  This lack of activity was due, in part, to the death of Joseph Banks in 1820 and the consequent loss of his aggressive leadership at Kew.  The first Opium War of 1839-42, despite its floral origins, did not help in the peaceful study of Chinese plants.  Then, with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Hong Kong was ceded to Great Britain and the Royal Horticultural Society woke up to the huge potential of the Chinese flora.  Accordingly, Fortune, a gardener with the Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh and the Horticultural Society’s Gardens at Chiswick was appointed as the Society’s ‘Collector in China’.


His travels extended over nineteen years.  His instructions for his first expedition were extensive.  Of primary interest were ‘the peaches of Pekin’, and tea.  Far down on the list was a reference to ‘The azalea from Lo-fou-shan, a mountain in the province of Canton’.  His salary was 100 pounds a year.  He experienced many difficulties, including being beset by pirates on several occasions.  Once he had to strafe an attacking junk with his big double-barreled fowling piece.  On another occasion he relates: “From their manner I suspected that their intentions were not good…My poor plants were flying about in all directions… I felt there was no denying we were in dangerous company”.


He traveled disguised as a native ‘from a distant province’.  I find it difficult to believe the Chinese were duped by his mimicry but then he seems to have been totally devoid of humour and was completely obsessed by his sense of mission.  A large part of his time was spent on tea plants and getting them to India.  His contention that green and black tea came from the same plant (a fact), did not seem to have been accepted by his superiors.  One of the biggest ironies in his struggles to get tea established in India is that few of Fortune’s Chinese plants survive there.  The tea plants that were later found native in Assam are the source of modern crops.


However, returning to the matter of R. Fortunei, and recalling its 1855 discovery, Fortune writes:  “In a romantic glen through which we passed on our journey I came upon a remarkably fine-looking rhododendron… All the Chinese in that part agreed in stating that the flowers of this species are large and beautiful, but as all rhododendrons have this character, it is impossible to predict what this one may turn out to be…”  He collected a goodly amount of seed and it grew vigorously at Chiswick and was soon prized in its own right and pressed into service as a stud in Europe and latterly in Eastern North America.


Some of the seeds’ progeny proved to be remarkably cold hardy.  Hybridizers n the New England States, such as Dexter and Gable, found it to be a great parent.  The Arnold Arboretum in Boston, along with notables like Pierre S. du Pont, used the Fortunei hybrids to great effect in their gardens.  It is still an essential genetic component of the large-flowered rhododendrons grown in the East and in our less harsh Western climate.  Fragrance and stature make it an essential species in all rhododendron collections.


Nowadays, however, even to an acolyte like myself, I hesitate to recommend Fortunei for smaller gardens.  It holds its leaves for two years at most, and its height usually means that the flowers are high above the nose.  In its favour, some of the recently introduced forms have intense purple petioles and bright red leaf bracts.  Combined, these make a statement at any time of year, but orbiculare and decorum are more useable in the average garden.  Fortunei has good kin and a majority of them are smelly.  They are remarkable in their range of flowering time – from February with oreodoxa – to July with Hemsleyanum.  The newly introduced glanduliferum (1995) is causing sweaty palms among the in-group.


Robert Fortune is well remembered.  He deserves to be.  The linguistic purists pronounce the penultimate vowel – the ‘e’ – in the name of the plant.  I don’t think the stolid Robert Fortune would appreciate the botanical probity of pronouncing the ‘e’ at the end of his name.  His name was ‘Fortune’, and if you stick an ‘i’ at the end that is good enough for me.  And I think it would have been good enough for him.