Ernest Henry Wilson – Chinese Wilson – Plant Hunter

  • Post published:02/04/2016
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Photo courtesy of Arnold Arboretum © President and Fellows of Harvard College. Arnold Arboretum Archives.
Photo courtesy of Arnold Arboretum © President and Fellows of Harvard College. Arnold Arboretum Archives.

Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) later known as Chinese Wilson, was British and as a young man he worked in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In 1898 James Veitch of the Veitch and Sons nursery asked Kew for a likely young man to send to China to find and bring back plants for the nursery. Wilson was recommended and chosen. For his first trip to China his assignment was to find and bring home seeds of the dove tree, Davidia involucrata. On his way to China he stopped at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston with a letter of introduction to Director Charles Sprague Sargent to learn the best ways to ship plants and seeds safely.

That meeting was the beginning of a long relationship with Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum. Sargent insisted that Wilson carry with him a large format field camera. The Arboretum now owns thousands of the photographs Wilson took in China.

On that first trip to China he met Augustine Henry who found the location of the dove tree as first described by Father Armand David in 1871. Henry described the location to Wilson as best he could, but the tree Henry had found had been chopped down. Fortunately, during the third year of  this trip Wilson was able to return to that area and found other younger dove trees and was able to send seeds back to Veitch. By the time he returned to England  two years collecting hundreds of species of plants, as well as hundreds of herbarium samples which he brought back to England in 1902.

He continued to work for Veitch and made a second trip to China under their auspices. In 1906 he made his third trip to China under the auspices of the Arnold Arboretum. It was on this trip that there was a landslide that crushed his leg. He made a splint out of his camera tripod and was carried for three days to a hospital. He recovered, but ever after had a limp that he called his lily limp because the Lilium regale, the Easter lily, was his great find on that trip.

By his own count Wilson brought back 25 rose species from China. This is particular interest to rose gardeners today because native Chinese roses have the ever blooming. gene.

He made a fourth trip for the Arboretum and later, in 1914 he began a study of Japanese plants including conifers, Kurume azaleas and Japanese cherries.

Wilson went on other travels, but in 1927, after Sargent’s death, he became Keeper of the Arnold Arboretum. His career was cut short when he and his wife were killed in an automobile accident in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Without plant hunters like these over the centuries, and continuing today, the flowers and plants available to us would be greatly limited. We are fortunate to be able to reap the benefits of their adventure and their passion.

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