Plant Hunters – John Bartram and Chinese Wilson

  • Post published:03/01/2013
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Photo courtesy of Arnold Arboretum © President and Fellows of Harvard College. Arnold Arboretum Archives.

Where do the plants in our garden come from? How did plants get from the heights of the Himalayan mountains, or the Appalachian mountains, to our gardens?

It would be hard to count the number of plants in our gardens that were first seen by the intrepid explorers of the last three centuries. John Bartram (1699-1777) of Philadelphia was possibly the first American botanist and plant hunter.

Bartram was a farmer with little formal education, but he was always interested in medicine and medicinal plants. In addition to his regular farm crops he began keeping a garden of plants that he found interesting. From that modest beginning he created a nursery and went on plant hunting trips first in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, later he went on to Virginia and the uncharted Appalachian mountains. Later still he traveled in Florida. Everywhere he went he collected seeds, nuts and cones that he could send to Peter Collinson, a wealthy British merchant, the man who introduced beautiful American plants to the nobility who were in the process of improving their estates. Our American natives were England’s desired exotics.

The business Bartram and Collinson embarked upon was amazingly successful in part because with Collinson’s advice Bartram devised a way of shipping seeds across the ocean so that they would still be viable when they arrived. One of the problems Bartram had was that he did not know the names of the interesting plants he was passing along, because he had no botanical education. The two men worked out a system so that Collinson could identify the seeds and thus request more of specific varieties from Bartram.

It is amazing to me that while his botanical education was limited at first, he ultimately became expert in shipping seeds and even plants, and learned Carl Linnaeus’ new binomial naming system, becoming a great proponent of that system.

The British fell in love with native plants like magnolias, azaleas, mountain laurel, and rhododendrons as well as sugar maples, viburnums and sumacs which gave them beautiful autumn color. They planted these on a mammoth scale, sometimes creating whole forests.

In 1765 Bartram sent King George III a box of his most special seeds. It was received with such pleasure that Bartram was named the King’s Botanist, a title he treasured.

Of course, this was a time when relations between the colonies and England were becoming strained by events like the passing of the Stamp Act which put a tax on paper, used for everything from newspapers, and legal documents to playing cards. It was fortunate for Bartram that Americans were becoming wealthy enough to think about their own gardens, giving Bartram a new market.

Bartram’s two sons, William and John Jr., continued to maintain the garden their father had created, and the business, sending plants and seeds around the world. Some of the plants named in the family’s honor include Amelanchier bartramiana and Commersonia bartramia. Amelanchier is our familiar shadblow or serviceberry tree, while the Commersonia is an Australian tree.

Bartram’s Garden remains a fascinating public garden to this day.

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 he did acquire seeds of the dove tree first, but continued on for 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.

Between the Rows  February 23, 2013

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