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How to follow in the footsteps of Ernest Henry Wilson

by William (Ned) Friedman, Director of the Arnold Arboretum
October 26, 2015


How to follow in the footsteps of Ernest Henry Wilson

Three weeks ago, I spent a day in the field north of Chengdu with Michael Dosmann (Curator of Living Collections), Professor Yin Kaipu (of the Chengdu Institute of Biology) and several wonderful Chinese colleagues. There in the Duijiangyan Nature Reserve, I had the remarkable good fortune to see a dove tree (Davidia involucrata) in the wild for the first time, and helped collect seeds that are now in our Dana Greenhouses. It was an amazing feeling to think that the progeny of these seeds might well be growing a century from now in the Arnold Arboretum, much as two of our current dove trees live on, more than a century after Wilson first collected dove tree seeds in China.

If you can’t spend a day or two in China following in the footsteps of Wilson, you can have a close experience in the living collections here in Jamaica Plain. One of the most wonderful trees in the Arnold Arboretum is the sand pear, Pyrus pyrifolia (7272*C) near the top of Bussey Hill. This specimen was collected as a seed by E. H. Wilson in 1907 (Arnoldia article here) in the mountains around Ichang in Hubei Province. The seed that gave rise to this particular tree arrived at the Arboretum in 1908, germinated in 1909, and was planted on Bussey Hill some time thereafter.

Although Charles Sprague Sargent (the first Director of the Arnold Arboretum) claimed that “there is little beauty in their small brown fruit” (Bulletin of Popular Information, May 10, 1919), I beg to differ. There is something magnificent about picking up one of these beautiful subtle sand pear fruits and holding it in your hand, much as Wilson must have done in 1907. If you want to imagine the sense of discovering a new species, make your way to specimen 7272*C, pick up one of the fruits on the ground, and marvel at it.

Left image and upper two right images are fruits from Wilson’s Pyrus pyrifolia.  Lower right image is fruit of Davidia involucrata in my hand in Duijiangyan Nature Reserve.

-Ned Friedman, Director of the Arnold Arboretum

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