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Source: JARS V50:No.1:p23:y1996

History of Rhododendron Introductions from China During the 19th Century

H. H. Davidian
Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland 

It may be of interest to provide brief introductory remarks on the historical background of plant introductions from China in the 19thcentury.

For a long time, China was completely closed to Europeans and to foreign travel until the middle of the 19th century.  No foreigners were allowed to go more than a few miles outside Canton and Macao, as these were the only ports open to Europeans.  The interior of China was strictly forbidden to foreigners.  Thus it was impossible for early collectors from Europe and elsewhere to explore the country.  Before 1860, the richness of the native flora of China was unsuspected and unknown.

Perhaps it would be desirable to deal first mainly with the early history of plant exploration in China between the years 1800 and 1860.

It has been recorded that the first amateur collector in China was James Cunningham.  He entered the service the East India Company, and in 1698 he was sent as a surgeon to Amoy, China.  Later in 1701 he set sail to Chusan (China) where he stayed for more than two years, and it was in the neighbourhood of this area where he made his main collection.  Cunningham sent home a large consignment of over 600 dried specimens. In 1709 he embarked to return to England and apparently died on the voyage home.

There were several collectors during the early period between 1800-1860.  A fairly large number of plants were introduced from two small areas, Canton and Macao in the south, from Peking and a strip of land at the Siberian frontier in the north and also from the islands of Formosa (Taiwan) and Hongkong.

It should be pointed out, during this early period there is no outstanding British collector with the exception of Robert Fortune.  A fairly well-known collector was Captain John Champion who was stationed in Hongkong from 1847 to 1850.  He discovered and introduced Rhododendron championae.

During the same period, Charles Wright, an American who had collected in Texas and Mexico, visited Hongkong in 1854 and collected a large number of various species which eventually formed Bentham's Flora Hongkongensis.

One of the greatest of plant collectors in the Far East was Robert Fortune.  He was born at Kellor in Berwickshire in 1812.  After serving his apprenticeship, he received a thorough training at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, under the famous William McNab.  Later he accepted the post of a superintendent at the Horticultural Society's gardens at Chiswick.  On Feb. 26, 1843, he departed for Hongkong where he stayed for seven weeks making the necessary travelling arrangements.  He discovered and introduced large numbers of specimens of various genera.  His most valuable introduction was Rhododendron fortunei from Chekiang in 1855; he also introduced the tea plant from China to India.  Fortune returned to Britain in 1862, and his retirement was spent in farming in his native Berwickshire.

A well-known traveller and collector during this period before 1860 was Henry Fletcher Hance, a member of the British Consular Service in Canton and Hongkong (ceded to Britain at the conclusion of the Opium War of 1840-1842).  He came out to China in 1844 and collected in Hongkong and later in the neighbourhood of Canton and Whampoa.  In 1861 he was made vice-consul and lived at Whampoa until his death in 1887.

It is to be noted that until 1860, China resisted successfully all efforts by Europeans at penetrations into the interior of the country.  Although no foreigners were allowed farther than the immediate neighbourhood of a few specified ports, yet it would appear that most of the plants growing in and around Canton, Macao and Peking had been introduced.

Soon after Fortune's third expedition in 1858-1859, war broke out between China and the allied powers, Britain, France, Germany and the United States.  After the Treaty of 1860, China was finally completely opened to foreign travel.  The Treaty powers were thus allowed to travel in the interior of China.  It is interesting to note that French missionaries, Europeans, Russian collectors and British consuls (administrators) were allowed to penetrate where they liked in China and even Tibet.

Now begins a new period in the history of plant hunting in China, 1860-1900.  The unsuspected richness of the flora of China was successfully revealed by the French missionaries who were stationed in Western China.  The vast quantities of specimens which they collected in S.E. Tibet, S.W. Sichuan and N.W. Yunnan were sent to Paris and were named by Franchet who also described them-Rhododendron davidii, R. delavayi, R. fargesii and R. souliei.

One of the great missionary collectors in Western China was Père Armand David.  He first went to Peking as a missionary in 1862 and made three great journeys of exploration.  The first to Mongolia was not of much importance.  The second lasted for two years from 1868-1870. In 1869 he went to Mupin and made his headquarters in a seminary run by the Missions Etrangères.  The main area of his search contained a remarkably rich flora.  He found many plants of importance including Rhododendron calophytum, R. davidii, R. decorum, R. moupinense and R. strigillosum.  His third journey to China lasted for two years. Unfortunately he suffered from ill health and returned to France in 1874.

A well-known French missionary collector during this early period 1860-1900 was Père Jean Marie Delavay who belonged to the same Missions Etrangères.  In 1867 he was stationed in the southern province of Kwangtung, not far from Canton.  Later he lived for nearly ten years in the northeast of Talifu, Yunnan. Most of his collecting was done in the area between Tali and Lichiang.  It is estimated that Delavay sent seeds and an enormous number of specimens to the Paris museum, including the following rhododendrons which he also introduced, namely Rhododendron ciliicalyx, R. fastigiatum, R. irroratum, R. racemosum and R. yunnanense. Unfortunately in 1886 he contracted bubonic plague and never completely recovered his health. He died in December 1895.

Another French missionary collector was Paul Guillaume Farges.  He came to China about the same time as Delavay in 1867.  During the years 1892 to 1903, he collected near the northeast border of Sichuan and sent large consignments of specimens to the museum in Paris; he also sent seeds to the nursery firm of Maurice de Vilmorin.  His introductions include Rhododendron discolor, R. fargesii and R. sutchuenense. Farges was not only a good collector, but he also did excellent work in organizing relief among the poor people of his area.  He died in 1912.

One of the most remarkable of these French missionaries was Jean André Soulié who arrived in China in 1886.  Apart from his medical work, he collected at Tatsienlu and in the Tibetan borderland.  Within a period of ten years he collected and sent to the museum in Paris more than 7,000 specimens, including Rhododendron souliei and R. ramosissium [now R. nivale].  However, he did not have much chance of sending home enough seed.  In the spring of 1905 there was much trouble between China and Tibet.  Before Soulié tried to escape, he was caught by the Tibetan monks of Batang, tortured for fifteen days and then shot. Later Soulié's assistant Père Bourdonnec was also beheaded.

During this period, 1860-1900, when French missionaries were collecting in Western China, several expeditions were sent out by Russia to central and eastern Asia.  One of the greatest of these Russian travellers was Grigori Nikolaevick Potanin.  In 1884 and 1893 he led two expeditions to Western china.  He collected vast quantities of specimens in the region of Mount Omei and Tatsienlu, which were later introduced by E. H. Wilson and other collectors.

Another well-known Russian traveller was Emil Bretschneider.  He was stationed at Peking in 1866 as a physician to the Russian Embassy.  He traveled extensively in the neighbourhood of Peking and introduced a fair number of plants including Rhododendron mucronulatum.

In 1861 Richard Oldham was sent out from Kew to the Far East as a collector.  In 1862 he collected in Japan near Yokohama and later round Nagasaki. Later in 1864 he explored Formosa (Taiwan) and discovered Rhododendron oldhamii.

In 1877 Charles Maries, a foreman of the nursery firm of James Veitch, left for the Far East and was away for three years. He spent most of his time collecting in Japan.  He was also fairly successful in China where he collected in the Kiukiang region.

Another traveler who collected in Western China was Antwerp E. Pratt. He left England in 1887, and during the next few years he collected in the south of Ichang, also at Tatsienlu and Mount Omei.  His collections include, among other genera, Rhododendron prattii.

During this transition period between 1860 and 1900, a famous collector was Dr. Augustine Henry, born in Ireland in 1856.  He left for China in 1881 and was stationed for a year in Shanghai.  Later he was sent to Ichang as assistant medical officer where he lived from 1882 to 1889.  During his six months leave he travelled extensively collecting plants in Sichuan and in Hupeh.  Most of these plants were later introduced by E. H. Wilson.  Henry's first collection of specimens was received in 1886.  In 1892 he was sent to Formosa (Taiwan) where he was able to make large collections.  It has been stated that Henry had collected over 5,000 specimens in China; however, he did not introduce very much himself.  Among his well-known discoveries which were introduced later by E. H. Wilson are Rhododendron auriculatum and R. augustinii.  Henry left china for good on Dec. 31, 1900.  It was the end of the transition period, between 1860 and the arrival of E. H. Wilson.

It is to be noted that during this transition period vast quantities of specimens were collected, and a large number of fine plants were introduced into cultivation.  It was during the same period that interest was developed in the collection of dried plants for the herbarium.  By the end of the 19th century, the period of plant collecting in China by amateurs, missionaries, travelers, merchants and diplomats was over; it was the end of an era.  Now begins a new period of the professional or horticultural collector with E. H. Wilson and George Forrest.

It should be stated that during the hazardous journeys and at the risk of their lives, all these collectors, amateurs, missionaries and travelers, who have collected extensively in Western China, have enriched our gardens with fine collections of plants.  To all these collectors we owe a debt of deep gratitude.

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