On a slow boat from China…

Hibiscus syriacus L. [as Alcea syriaca flore candido] from Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis, vol. 2:  (1613) 

China has one of the richest flora in the world but many of its plants remained unknown in the west until comparatively recently. While we all know about Chinoiserie as a fashion in  decor and in garden architecture particularly in the 18thc I suspect much less is known about the arrival of Chinese plants to complement them.

Tea – Camellia sinensis  [as Thea sinensis]
from Elizabeth Blackwell, Herbarium Blackwellianum, vol. 4: t. 352 (1760)

That’s partly becasue although there was a flourishing trade between China and western Europe from the 17thc onwards – albeit mainly one-way in China’s favour – the Chinese authorities gradually restricted western access to their ports and travel by Europeans around the country.  As a result would be early plant collectors, found it difficult to search and collect specimens.

It was, of course, at least equally hard to get them home.  Travelling was a slow business. Sailing between Britain and China was restricted by the trade and monsoon winds and the journey was at least 6 months, with a six month stay to wait for favourable winds  in the opposite direction and then another six month journey home. Its quite extraordinary that anything at all got back safe and sound.

Hollyhocks – Alcea rosea L. [as Malva hortensis flore simplici albo] from Besler’s 
Hortus Eystettensis, vol. 2 (1613)

Of course some Chinese plants had arrived in the west before we have any historical records. They had spread into Southeast Asia, India and eventually Europe by the time of the Roman Empire – even if  this process was 2nd or 3rd  hand or rather at something more like 99th hand…..with Chinese fruits like citrus,  apricots and peaches, as well as flowers such as hollyhocks and hibiscus syriacus moving along the Silk Road, and even rice being available in the west by the later middle ages.  But in terms of anything more deliberate we have to wait until the establishment of the Portuguese trading concession at Macao in 1537.

Hemerocallis fulva (L.) L. [as Liriosphodelus phoeniceus] from Matthias 
Lobel, Plantarum seu stirpium icones, vol. 1: p. 93, (1581)

A few introductions must have happened soon afterwards. The yellow daylily or Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus, for example, was known by Leonhard Fuchs and by the 1570s both it and the tawny daylily or H.fulva  also made its appearance in western herbals such as those by Matthias Lobel and John Gerard.

Of course the one plant that had the greatest impact on the west and transformed the mediterranean garden and economy couldn’t actually be grown outdoors in Britain, but had to have special buildings constructed to house it. The Chinese orange, Citrus x sinensis   was introduced in the late 16thc by the earliest Portuguese and Spanish adventurers, and  soon reached England. It was an early example of plant one-upmanship with Lord Burghley and Francis Carew of Beddington competing to be the first to successfully import and grow them.  Carew won, planted them outdoors and built a temporary shelter around them every winter.

Citrus sinensis [as Poma aurantia] from 
Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis, vol. 2: 1613

The Beddington orange grove survived for many decades until they were finally killed in the severe winter of 1739-40. [For more on that see Paula Henderson, The Tudor House and Garden, p.146].

But it’s the permit granted to a small group of Jesuit priests to settle in Beijing in 1601 that really alters western knowledge. Many of these missionary fathers were interested in botany and wrote accounts of Chinese flora.   For example Father Alvarus Semedo (1585-1658), spent 22 years in China and wrote how “flowers are held in singular esteem with these people and they have some exceeding beautiful and different from ours” and he included brief descriptions, although sadly no illustrations,  of several plants.

Of course we mustn’t assume that having a description equated to the plant being grown in European gardens. Far from it. Semedo gives a short account [p.6] of what is now guessed to be winter sweet [Chimonanthus praecox] which did not reach Britain until about 120 years later, with the first recorded flowering being for Lord Coventry  at Croome Park  in 1779.  Even then its origins and taxonomy were uncertain, and it’s not until 1820 that John Lindley classified and described it.


Our first illustrations  of Chinese plants appear in Chapter 6 – which is all about exotic plants – of Father Athanasius Kircher’s China Illustrata, 1667.

And what illustrations they were!










More plant portraits appeared in chapter 15 of  Nieuhof’s account of the Dutch embassy to Beijing in 1655 which  was  translated into English in 1669.

However, as a recent post  Looking East showed although it was very influential in creating an interest in Chinoiserie buildings  it had little influence on gardens.

The Phoenix Tree. Firmiana simplex
grown in the hothouses at Syon Park in the 1750s Image from Nouveaux Memoires sur l’etat de chine

These Jesuit accounts  fascinated botanists, including James Petiver, the apothecary at Charterhouse, who sat spider-like at the centre of a large global network of correspondents.

In 1696 Petiver was introduced to James Cuninghame, a ship’s surgeon, who was sailing to China later in the year and offered to search for plants for him. Petiver went to  Nieuhof’s account and also to the most-up-to-date account of China, the newly published  Nouveaux Memoires sur l’etat de chine by father Louis Le Comte’s narrative. From them he drew up a list of 80 Chinese plants for Cuninghame to collect, including the mysterious chaa.

Cuninghame arrived at Amoy in July 1698 and immediately began to collect local plants around the port itself and on a nearby island with Petiver’s list as a guide.  The majority of the specimens he found were growing wild in the countryside but there was one interesting single leaf that he labeled swatea fl rubro . Now in the Sloane herbarium  at the Natural History Museum in London (v 263 folio 51). It was the first European recording of camellia japonica.

Two plant specimens collected by Cuninghame during his stay in Amoy (June 1698 to January 1699) accompanied by his original labels on red paper. From Hans Sloane’s herbarium, HS 247, fol. 32. (Reproduced by kind permission of the Natural History Museum, London.)

But soon Cuninghame found himself severely hampered. He wrote home to Petiver: “had I the liberty I could wish for I might have made greater collections; but the jealousy of these people among whom we live restrained so much that we have no freedom of rambling.”  Despite these restrictions there are 600 of his specimens in the Natural History Museum herbarium.

One of the ways that Cuninghame got round this limitation on his movement was to buy paintings of Chinese plants or even employing artists to paint them.  By the time the ship left Amoy seven months later he had acquired nearly 800 pictures (these are I think now in the British Library Add Ms. 5292-5294) sadly as far as I can see none have yet been digitized.

Cuninghame returned to London in 1699,  and was  proposed by Hans Sloane himself for election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. It might have been then that he gave Sloane the  sample of tea which Sloane included in his Vegetable Substances collection.

from Sloane’s Vegetable Substances. Image taken from thehistoryblog where you can read more about its rediscovery.

He obviously had itchy feet and returned to China six months later.  It was a difficult time. The trading post was expelled by the Chinese and moved to an island off Cochin-China where it was attacked and most of the Europeans murdered.   Cuninghame escaped and started to make his way home enduring terrible hardships, imprisonment and narrow escapes,  along the way before finally ending up in Bengal to catch a ship back to Britain in 1709.   Unfortunately the ship disappeared en route and is presumed to have been wrecked, Cuninghame drowned, and whatever else he had collected lost.

Cuninghame’s  early letters to Petiver were published as an article in the Transactions of the Royal Society in 1703. 

Tea :  Camellia sinensis [as Tsja] from
Englebert Kaempfer’s, Amoenitatum exoticarum,1712

It was the first piece to be published in English describing plants from China, and included the first ever  proper description of tea. Cuninghame was also astute enough to recognize it was very closely related to camellia japonica, although it was to be another 145 years before his assertion that all kinds of tea came from one species was generally accepted.

There is a fascinating and meticulously researched article about Cuninghame’s collecting work in Notes and Records of the Royal Society [2015] by Charles Jarvis and Philip Oswald.

Around the same time, but less well recorded other anonymous agents of the East India Company bought back seeds from China for George London, the Royal gardener and nurseryman, and soon there  was a slow but regular pattern of seeds arriving from the far East.

Hibiscus mutabilis was definitely in Britain by 1690, while Celosia  argentea, the annual coxcomb was being grown by the Duchess of Beaufort in 1714,

Celosia argentea [as Amaranthus panniculis coccineis latissimis] from 
Weinmann’s  Phytanthoza iconographia, vol. 1(1737) 

Dianthus chinensis was probably introduced before 1716 and a double version was definitely in the Jardin du Roi in Paris by 1719.

Dianthus chinensis  [as Caryophyllus chinensis flore pallido pleno] from 
Weinmann’s Phytanthoza iconographia, vol. 2: (1739) 

Aster seeds arrived in Paris from French Jesuits in the 1720s and had reached Chelsea Physic  Garden by 1731. 

Callistephus chinensis  [as Aster chinensis ] from 
Bulliard, Flora Parisiensis, vol. 1 (1776-1781)

 But still there was no widespread flooding of western gardens with trees or shrubs of Chinese origin.That’s probably not that surprising. What was arriving in Europe [other than  herbarium specimens] were seeds and, as anyone who has tried to grow woody plants from seed   will know, it takes a long time to grow into anything that might be usable in the garden or for propagation purposes.

Meanwhile Chinese goods were appearing in greater and greater quantities in the west including ceramics, textiles, wallpaper panels, fans , paintings and even furniture   and many depicted a huge variety of exotic flowers. It wasn’t long before British gardeners and  plant collectors realised the importance of having a direct link with the only Europeans who really had access to China and its plants.


In 1746 the president of the Royal Society, Dr Cromwell Mortimer,  wrote to the Jesuits in Beijing asking if they could supply him with various Chinese specimens. This led to  a convoluted correspondence and seed exchange with Father Nicholas d’Incarville which also involved the botanic garden in Oxford and Chelsea Physic Garden.  This will, it was argued, “in all likelihood produce many trees and shrubs that might bear our climate, and contribute to the ornament of our plantations and Gardens”.

Mimosa pudica L. [as Herba viva repens] from Abraham Munting’s Naauwkeurige beschrijving der aardgewassen, (1696)

By the early 1750s d’Incarville, despite all his difficulties, had been able to present the Emperor of China with a range of European seeds and bulbs and a small sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica).  In return he had been given permission to collect plants inside the Imperial Gardens and so Dr Mortimer and other Europeans were soon receiving seeds from there too.  They included Sophora japonica, the Chinese scholar tree or the Japanese pagoda tree)…

Sophora japonica from
The botanist’s repository  vol. 9:(1809-1810)






the tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) which was being grown in Chelsea physic Garden in 1751; Thuja orientalis  which was at both Chelsea  and Strawberry Hill by 1755 and probably the best-known of all  the Ginkgo biloba although this was not the first introduction as the Dutch had already obtained  seeds via their trading post at Deshima in Japan and it was growing at Utrecht’s botanic gardens in the 1730s.

Incarvillea arguta, named  in honour of Father d’Incarville, from  Paxton’s Magazine of Botany and Register of Flowering Plants  (1839)

The spirit of corporation between European botanic gardens meant that d’Incarville’s seeds were quickly shared around and passed on in turn to private individuals and nurseryman and introduced into their networks as well.  Unfortunately everything came to an abrupt end when d’Incarville died in 1757.

What happened after that will have to wait for another post!  But in the meantime if you want to know more an excellent place to start is Jane Kilpatrick’s Gifts from the Gardens of China [2007].


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3 Responses to On a slow boat from China…

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Goodness! Some of the illustrations really do look silly. The funny thing is that some of them actually make more sense than modern photographs. I mean, they have a way of enhancing the identifying features that are not ‘really’ so easy to see otherwise.

  2. Alison Coupe says:

    Really fascinating article, thank you. It has prompted me to read a bit more on this subject.

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