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Pirates and Plants

By Dea Schofield, Green Spring Gardens Park

Ah, the peace and tranquility of the garden! Looking around at the delicate bleeding heart amid an array of hostas and pulmonaria in dappled shade, do we wonder how it first came from its native China? Its graceful, nodding blossoms do not hint at the extreme dangers overcome by the man who risked his life to introduce it to the West. His adventures, and those of many others, are responsible for much of what we find in our lovely, peaceful gardens.

Robert Fortune was a 30-year-old botanist/horticulturist first sent to China by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1843. He learned about Chinese gardening and collected new seeds and plants during his four trips to China. Along the way, however, he endured terrible storms and harsh adventures.

On one trip, Fortune was collecting tree peonies and weigelas when a gale nearly capsized his small sailboat. On another voyage, a three-day storm battered the ship, causing a skylight to fall on him. At another time a 30-pound fish crashed through a skylight, and the storm destroyed many of the plants he had collected.

Because the Chinese were suspicious of foreigners, Fortune often disguised himself on his trips. On one occasion when he failed to do so, his junk was attacked by pirate boats that returned to strike again two days later. Already sick with fever, Fortune managed to fight them off.

Fortune’s legacy is the 120 new species he brought to the west-ern world from China and Japan. These include jasmine, forsythia and honeysuckle, beautiful staples of fragrant gardens.

Another famous European plant explorer was Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain James Cook on his circumnavigation of the globe. He collected and recorded plants along the route. Storms, hostile Portuguese cannon fire, cold and exhaustion at Tierra del Fuego ravaged his party. Later they traveled to New Zealand, Australia, Java and South Africa. They endured scurvy, venereal disease, hostile natives (including cannibals) and malaria. Only two of Banks’ own men survived.

The Banks’ legacy, however, is said to include 7,000 species (if you see a Banksia in a plant name, he’s your guy; Australia is full of Banksias). His work is a critical part of botanical identifications.

A current exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, details the grueling nature of such “Voyages of Discovery,” and runs until July 22. It covers three centuries of British exploration and is drawn from the collection of the Natural History Museum in London. For more information, call 202- 357-2700.

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