News and Events

Botanical Buzz - The May Bush

Monday, September 22, 2014

The tranquil environment of the Dubbo Regional Botanic Garden belies the amazing stories surrounding the discovery of some of its beautiful plants by European plant collectors.

The May Bush (Spirea cantonensis), a native of South Eastern China is a spectacular white flowering shrub. The name can be confusing as it flowers profusely in September and October in the southern hemisphere but flowers in May in the northern hemisphere.

The May Bush is one of more than 120 exotic plants including peonies, chrysanthemums and rhododendrons introduced to Europe from China by the Scottish botanist, plant collector and industrial spy Robert Fortune.

Fortune first visited China in 1843 on behalf of the London Horticultural Society with a list of interesting requests. He was asked to find blue flowered peonies and tea plants, and to investigate the peaches growing in the Emperor's private garden.

It was a daring mission because Fortune could not speak mandarin and had no previous experience as a plant collector. Furthermore China was in turmoil after the first Opium War and access to the country by Europeans was still strictly limited.

During his three year mission Fortune made many excursions to the northern provinces in China. He had numerous harrowing adventures including encountering angry mobs caught up in a xenophobic frenzy, pirates on the Yangtse River and ferocious storms in the Yellow Sea, but managed to survive them all.

Fortune learned mandarin and disguised himself by shaving his head, growing a pigtail and dressing as a Chinaman so that he could walk amongst the local people largely unnoticed.

Altogether, Fortune made four trips to China and one trip to Japan.

He is most famous for passing on the secrets of tea production and successfully smuggling well over 20,000 tea plants and seedlings from China to the Himalayas for the East India Company. This action helped develop the tea industry in India.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     By Ian McAlister & Karen Hagan