Weigela – plant hunting in China

Weigela – plant hunting in China

Scottish botanist Robert Fortune (1812-1880) was perhaps the most successful of the 19th century plant hunters. In three trips to China between 1843 and 1847 he sent back as many as 200 plants, including weigela.

Robert Fortune – it has been estimated that he smuggled 20,000 plants out of China.

For centuries China was closed to Western travellers. The Opium Wars resulted in it being forced to open several ports to British merchants. In 1842 Fortune was commissioned by the Horticultural Society (the forerunner of the Royal Horticultural Society) to take advantage of this to go and seek exotic plants to send back to Britain.

Even given China’s submission to the gunship diplomacy of the British Empire, this was no easy task. As a Westerner he often attracted large crowds (and tells of having his pockets picked). With Imperial hauteur, he described his technique for escape: “I walked on towards the hills and began to ascend them – a plan which I always adopted when I wanted to get away from the Chinese, as they are generally too lazy to follow far, where much exertion is required.” (Some might say the observation equally applies to the British today, as anyone will testify who has fled the crowds swamping Bakewell on a Bank Holiday by the simple expedient of heading out to the hills and away from the pie shops.)

Often Fortune found himself on the wrong end of more than just curious jostling. At one point he was violently robbed, escaping narrowly with his life. On another, a junk he was travelling on came under fire from pirates. He escaped only by threatening to kill his cowering Chinese crew to force them to make good their flight and then shooting dead a number of the pirates as their boats closed in.

The East India Company iron steam ship Nemesis, with boats from the Sulphur, Calliope, Larne and Starling, destroying Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay, 7 January 1841.

Several voyages almost ended in disaster because of incredible storms, and his journeys to the interior had to be done in disguise, with him pretending to be a traditional Chinese man – complete with shaved head and ponytail – as no Westerner was allowed more than a day’s walk from the treaty ports.

His most famous accomplishment was smuggling tea plants out of China to India – and the knowledge of how to process the crop – making possible the Indian tea industry.

Fortune, who also travelled to Japan, was responsible for discovering many plants found in gardens today, including forsythias, lilacs, winter jasmine, skimmia japonica, several varieties of rhododendron, honeysuckle, clematis and paeonies. He also introduced at least half a dozen roses – it will be interesting to see how important they were in the development of our modern varieties.

In 1844 he visited the island of Chusan (between the Chinese mainland and Japan), where he came across weigela in the garden of a Chinese mandarin.

He considered it one of the most beautiful shrubs of Northern China. “It was loaded with its noble rose-coloured flowers, and was the admiration of all who saw it, both English and Chinese.*

More than 170 years later, looking at the two pretty weigela cultivars in my garden – a variegated pink, and a dark crimson – all loaded with flowers, I cannot help feeling admiration too. I have more mixed emotions about Fortune.

Weigela florida ‘variegata’

Arguably racist, by today’s standards, and a horticultural thief and spy on an industrial scale, his fortune was probably the misfortune of many others. However, by destroying the Chinese tea monopoly he created a huge industry in India and encouraged the English passion for the drink that exists today. Our gardens are immeasurably the richer for his efforts too. Hero or villain? Probably both.


*Robert Fortune – Three years’ wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China

Sparrows – avian rats or gardener’s friend?

Sparrows – avian rats or gardener’s friend?

The Office for National Statistics estimates that between 1970 and 2013 the population of house sparrows in the UK declined by 72%. 

I am very lucky in having a gang of sparrows noisily chasing each other around my garden, flitting from rose to rose picking out the greenfly and anything else tasty they can find.

Gardeners have not always been so affectionate towards the sparrow. William Watson, editor of the  Gardener’s Assistant, writing in 1900 had a particular aversion to them. He wrote:

The sparrow, or ‘Avian Rat’, is the most troublesome and mischievous of all British birds, whether in the corn or seed-fields, or gardens… Incessant war should be waged against the sparrow, the worst of all feathered pests.”

19th century French roses: Mme Alfred Carriére

It’s difficult to understand this hatred for sparrows, but Watson, who was assistant curator at the Royal Gardens in Kew, was not alone.  

Sparrow clubs

From the 18th century onwards, many agricultural parishes had “sparrow clubs” whose members were rewarded for destroying the birds and went into battle with typical Victorian excess. The Bucks Herald reported in May 28th 1892 that the “Tring and District Sparrow Club made a record of destroying 5,345 sparrows in the last five months. 20,000 were destroyed over the whole area and prizes were given.”

Many Victorians understood the value of the birds in eating caterpillars and keeping down garden pests – a pamphlet from the Royal Agricultural Society of England and Wales published in 1862 makes this clear:

“Even sparrows may be included in the list of useful birds, notwithstanding the damage they cause at times to the orchard or cornfield, because they feed their young (which have very good appetites) exclusively upon larva, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, worms, or ants; and both old and young at the end of summer are constantly filling their crops with the seeds of weeds. A couple of sparrows will consume in food for their young about 3000 insects weekly, each parent bringing a bill-full 30 times an hour. These services are well worth a few cherries. The field-sparrow does not, moreover, eat cherries, and a small number of these birds will soon cleanse many shrubs and rose-trees from the aphis.”

 In 1865 The Gateshead Observer, responding to news that one individual at a sparrow club in southern England had killed 6,000 birds, quoted the President of the Naturalists’ Field Club, the Rev G. C Abbs, who calculated that those 6,000 sparrows would have eaten 6,307,000,000 caterpillars. And noted: “While the clodhoppers of Sussex are killing sparrows by the thousand, the Australian colonists are importing them at considerable expense from England, to act the part of protectors of the crops.”

Others pointed out that farmers had themselves to blame if there were too many sparrows – they had also killed the sparrow hawks that kept populations in control. The lesson about ecological balance was not learned. In 1958 Mao Zedong launched the “smash sparrows campaign” in China to protect crops. So many were killed it resulted in a surge in the locust and insect populations, which stripped the fields, causing famine.

Tree sparrows

My sparrows are house sparrows. Watson was writing mainly for landowners and the owners of stately homes (or their armies of gardeners). The sparrows he was contending with may have been tree sparrows (which the ONS records show have declined by 90% since 1970 in the UK).

Maybe their numbers were so great that they were a pest. But for a humble town gardener like me, these birds are a rich blessing.

Watson, for all his vitriol adopted a humane policy of ‘pest control’ – chasing off the birds.

“In the case of orchards and large quantities of valuable seed cultures, a boy may be engaged to scare away birds. Scarecrows are generally so evidently a burlesque on anything real that birds take pleasure in sitting upon them.”

Zephrine Drouhan (pink rose) is highly susceptible to greenfly. Also pictured, Mme Hardy (white rose)

In my small walled garden I have now over 60 roses. I leave fatballs and seed out for the sparrows – and occasionally treat them to some dried mealworm. In return they strip my roses of greenfly. 

Occasionally the weight of the sparrows as they perch cheekily on a rose stalk hunting their prey does cause damage, but I am happy to tolerate that for the benefits they bring.


Banner image – Prasan Shrestha, CC BY-SA 4.0

Which came first, the mistletoe or mistle thrush?

Which came first, the mistletoe or mistle thrush?

This winter we had the pleasure of hosting a pair of visiting mistle thrushes in our garden.This plump thrush (the largest native to Europe) has a distinctive, pale-grey front, flecked with black spots from throat to feet and and the couple made a handsome sight, hopping boldly across the lawn.


Though found across Britain, the bird is on the RSPB’s red list, which indicates a species whose population has declined by over 50% in the past 25 years.

Mistle thrush male passes earthworms to a female. Picture by T.Voekler

When not ground-hopping, the mistle thrush (which has the unfortunate Latin name of turdus viscivorus) has a tendency to perch on the highest branch of a tree to advertise its territory through exceptionally loud song that can be heard up to 2km away.

Imagine our surprise, then, a few weeks after our visitors had departed when we noticed a bough of mistletoe growing in our rather decrepit apple tree – on the highest branch. Was there a connection?


The mistle thrush enjoys berries and is particularly partial to the fruit of the mistletoe (it is said to defend vigorously any clumps it finds in Winter from rivals).

The seeds of the mistletoe pass through the bird and are secreted on to the branch. The fruit is sticky and so the seed is also passed on by the bird wiping its beak on the branch.

Mistletoe is thought of as a parasitic plant that takes its energy from its host, but it is technically a hemiparasite as for some part of its life it does perform a little photosynthesis too.

Mistletoe in our apple tree

The seedling can take a year or more to penetrate the branch and begin to draw nutrients from it. We now have a healthy looking plant in the tree, which would indicate that our mistletoe was not the result of this year’s visiting mistle thrush but that the mistle thrush was the result of our mistletoes –they just spotted it before we did!

That doesn’t mean the plant didn’t arrive via an earlier mistle thrush visitor. It would be nice to think so.

What this means for our elderly apple tree is another question and it would be interesting to hear from other gardeners about their mistletoe experiences.

Comments (and pictures) welcome!

Mistle thrushes hopping across the lawn


Banner image – Giles Laurent, CC BY-SA 4.0

Storyteller garden: Every garden has tales to tell

Storyteller garden: Every garden has tales to tell

We bought our Victorian semi 30 years ago. The garden is only small (45′ x 31′) but it has a 12 foot high brick wall at the end that would grace a much one bigger house (and indeed once did – on the other side of it). Smaller brick walls on either side offer an encouraging backdrop in which to labour, creating a small garden.

The design of my garden

A few years ago I had the temerity to open to the scrutiny of the public on the local garden trail. This requires serious chutzpah and even more serious hard work.

Other people on the trail have bigger and better gardens; many offer refreshments and plant sales; there are choirs, chickens, bee hives and even wood-turning. I just have plants. But those plants and how they got to be here have stories, some of them quite remarkable.

I’ve been a storyteller all my working life. So today I tell some of the stories behind the plants in my garden. I hope they fascinate others as much as they fascinate me.

We’ll hear about why the French once made growing potatoes illegal, the nefarious deeds of competitive 18th century Lancashire gooseberry growers, my French wives, Chinese pirates and why roses improve your hearing.

In this storyteller blog I hope to share and to continue telling those tales – drawing on the expertise of some wonderful garden history writers (whose books I’ll try to encourage you to read in a future blog), my own little collection of Victorian gardening books and Google (which offers us access to and useful glimpses of a fantastic selection of academic texts, old books and journals here and internationally).

Shuttle fern unfolding (left) and Pulmonaria vulgaris, or lungwort (right). In medieval times it was believed that the shape of a plant offered a hint as to its medicinal benefits.

I studied history at University many years ago but I was a journalist for 20 years and I’m in PR now, so if I’ve misinterpreted texts and twisted the truth somewhat, consider it an occupational hazard. Please forgive and correct me and please share your stories and nuggets of knowledge too. Thanks for taking the time to read the storyteller garden blog.