Happy Birthday, Ernest Henry Wilson
February 15 marks the birthday of Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson (1876-1930), renowned and beloved plant explorer and botanist, adventurer, and educator. Wilson was the furthest traveled of all the Arnold Arboretum plant explorers of the early twentieth century. It is not an overstatement to credit Wilson with bringing Eastern Asian botany, history, and culture to widespread interest in the West, nor to exaggerate the introduction of thousands of non-native plant species to their gardens. Wilson’s journeys took him all over the world—from 1899 to 1930, he visited dozens of countries, collected thousands of plant specimens (cuttings and seeds), and took thousands of incredible photographs documenting trees and forests, landscapes, and ethnography which testify to his legacy.
Wilson was born in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, England. He apprenticed at a local nursery in Solihull, and in 1892 he became a gardener at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens where he received the Queen’s Prize for botany. He joined the staff the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew in 1897.
When England’s famed Veitch Nursery asked the director of Kew to recommend a collector to be sent to China, it was Wilson they selected. He left for China in 1899 and returned to England in 1902. His second trip to China for Veitch lasted from 1903-1906. For three years beginning in 1907, Wilson explored western Hubei and western Sichuan for the Arnold Arboretum. His second Arboretum expedition, which began in 1910, was mounted to collect cones and conifer seeds in the central and southwestern parts of China. In September of that year, while traveling in west Sichuan, a landslide crushed his leg and curtailed the expedition.
By 1914, he had recovered enough to return to the field. It was decided that Japan would be his next destination and Mrs. Wilson and daughter Muriel Primrose would accompany him. On this trip, he focused his study on native forests, cultivated plants, and horticultural practices, using the well-developed railroad system in the country to assist his exploration. Beginning in 1917, he undertook a systematic exploration of Korea, Japan, and Formosa (Taiwan); when he returned to the Arboretum in 1919, he brought back seeds, living plants, herbarium specimens, and 700 photographs. His last expedition, a tour of the gardens of the world, took place from 1920 to 1922. Wilson was a popular lecturer on the topics of his travels and horticulture. After Charles Sargent’s death in 1927, he became “Keeper” of the Arnold Arboretum. Three years later his career was cut short when he and his wife were killed in an automobile accident near Worcester, Massachusetts. They are buried in the Mont-Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Canada.
Wilson’s quotations about trees
“Toward bringing man nearer unto man this garden is a potent force. It exists for service, which service knows no boundary of race or creed. The Arnold Arboretum is worthy of the Nation and of the Nations pride.” Preface, America’s Greatest Garden, 1925
“Stern are the laws that govern Nature’s children . . . charity is unknown in the forest and meadow but must be exercised in gardens if our favorite plants are to be happy, lusty and long lived. And charity reigns in the [Arnold] Arboretum.”
America’s Greatest Garden, 1925
“In Japan, one is never out of sight of conifers . . . in few other countries are the forests of such supreme importance to the prosperity of the nation.”
The Conifers and Taxads of Japan, 1916
“The Bamboo flourishes everywhere in the Far East, and is just as beautiful when sheltering the peasant’s cottage or the beggar’s hut as when ornamenting the courtyards of temples and the mansions of the wealthy. It is the one woody plant that is really abundant throughout the Middle Kingdom. The Occident possesses no tree or shrub which for all-around general usefulness compares with the Bamboo of the Orient.”
A Naturalist in Western China, 1914
“Of Taiwania Tokyo possesses but one complete sheet and a loose branch without cones or flowers. All I could obtain was a fragment of this vegetative shoot. Mr. Hayata [Botanical Garden Imperial University] said the tree was so tall that no one could climb it and it was only when branches were blown off by strong winds that specimens were obtainable. This sounded rather lame and I suggested that specimens might be procured by shooting them off with a shot-gun. They asserted the idea was new to them, and promised to try it.”
Letter to Charles Sargent, Shanghai, February 10, 1907
Did you know?
Wilson introduced many Asiatic species into Anglo-Western cultivation, some of which led to both spontaneous and intentional hybridizations.
Wilson’s image collection consists of approximately 7,700 photographs taken at the Arnold Arboretum, throughout New England, in Eastern Asia, and around the world.
Arboretum Library Holdings
Please note: The Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library curates a prodigious amount of Wilson material—photographs, books, articles, and more. This list is but a sampling. Please visit the library in person and online.
Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) papers, 1896-1952.
America’s greatest garden : the Arnold Arboretum. The Stratford Company, 1925.
Aristocrats of the garden. The Stratford company, 1926.
Aristocrats of the trees. Stratford, 1930.
The cherries of Japan. [Harvard] University Press, 1916.
China, mother of gardens. Stratford, 1929.
The conifers and taxads of Japan. [Harvard] University Press, 1916.
Leaves from my Chinese note-book. [London? : s.n., 1905-1906] [online].
A naturalist in western China : with vasculum, camera, and gun. Doubleday, Page & Co., 1914 [online].
Plant hunting. The Stratford company, 1927.
Plantae Wilsonianae : an enumeration of the woody plants collected in western China for the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University during the years 1907, 1908, and 1910. [Harvard] University Press, 1913-1917 [online].
Chvany, Peter J. “E. H. Wilson, Photographer.” Arnoldia, 36:5 (1976).
Clausen, Kristen; Hu, Shiu-ying. “Mapping the Collecting Localities of E. H. Wilson in China.” Arnoldia, 40:3 (1980).
Ferguson, A.R. “E. H. Wilson, Yichang, and the Kiwifruit.” Arnoldia, 43:4 (1983).
Flanagan, Mark. Wilson’s China : a century on. Kew, 2009.
Gardner, William. “E. H. Wilson’s First Trip to China.” Arnoldia, 32:3 (1972).
Glasser, Larissa. “Ernest Henry Wilson, Yakushima, and the Wilson stump.” Library Leaves, February 5, 2014.
Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. “Expeditions & Discoveries: Sponsored Exploration and Scientific Discovery in the Modern Age. Ernest H. Wilson Expeditions to China, Japan, Korea, Formosa, and Islands
in the Japanese Sea 1899–1919.”
Howard, Richard A. “E. H. Wilson as a Botanist (Part I).” Arnoldia, 40:3 (1980).
Howard, Richard A. “E. H. Wilson as a Botanist (Part II).” Arnoldia, 40:4 (1980).
Mollendorf, Miranda. “Trees and their Biographies: Parts One, Two, and Three.” Library Leaves, August 14, 2013, September 4, 2013, and September 16, 2013.
Pearson, Lisa. “Ernest Wilson’s New England Trees.” Library Leaves, July 10, 2013.
Yin, Kaipu. Tracing one hundred years of change: Illustrating the environmental changes in Western China. Encyclopedia of China Publishing House, 2010.