Meet the Explorers
Ernest Henry Wilson
“Chinese” Wilson–Plant Hunter, Plant Scientist, Photographer
Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) was the furthest traveled of all the Arnold Arboretum’s 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 at Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, England, on February 15, 1876, the eldest of seven children. He apprenticed at the nurseries of Messrs. Hewitt of Solihull, Warwickshire and in 1892, gained employment at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens as a gardener. He studied botany at the Birmingham Technical School in the evenings, and joined the staff the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew in 1897.
Even at a young age, E. H. Wilson showed immense promise. When the Veitch nursery firm asked the director of Kew to recommend a botanical collector to be sent to China, he recommended Wilson. After training at Veitch’s Coombe Wood Nursery, he left in 1899 to begin a successful career collecting Asiatic plants, returning to England in 1902. His second trip to China for Veitch lasted from 1903-1906. Wilson’s third and fourth China expeditions were sponsored by Charles S. Sargent, the director of the Arnold Arboretum. For three years beginning in 1907, Wilson explored western Hubei and western Sichuan, returning to Boston in 1909. Wilson’s second Arboretum expedition, which began in 1910, was 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 hit the expedition group, crushing Wilson’s leg. After several months of recuperation, he returned to Boston in March 1911, much earlier than planned.
In 1914, Wilson explored Japan, focusing his attention on conifers, azaleas, and Japanese cherries. Beginning in 1917, he undertook a systematic exploration of Korea, Japan, and Formosa (Taiwan), returning to Boston in 1919 with seeds, living plants, 30,000 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 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. They are buried in the Mont-Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Canada.
The works of E. H. Wilson [HOLLIS].
Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) papers, 1896-1952 [pdf].
Clausen, Kristen; Hu, Shiu-ying. “Mapping the Collecting Localities of E. H. Wilson in China.” Arnoldia, 40:3 (1980) [pdf].
Ferguson, A.R. “E. H. Wilson, Yichang, and the Kiwifruit.” Arnoldia, 43:4 (1983) [pdf].
Flanagan, Mark. Wilson’s China : a century on. Kew, 2009 [HOLLIS].
Furui, Tomoko. Wilson’s Yakushima: Memories of the Past. Kētīshīchūōshuppan, 2013 [HOLLIS].
Gardner, William. “E. H. Wilson’s First Trip to China.” Arnoldia, 32:3 (1972) [pdf].
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.”
In addition to bringing the botany of Eastern Asia to Western audiences, Wilson set a high standard in the study of plant science. Wilson introduced over 100 plants of Eastern Asian origin to the west, and 60 species and varieties of Chinese plants bear his name. Charles Sprague Sargent edited a partial list of his introductions in Plantae Wilsonianae.
In recognition of this service, Wilson received the the Veitch Memorial Medal (1906) and the Victoria Medal of Honour (1912) of the Royal Horticultural Society of London. He also received the George Robert White Memorial Medal of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and an honorary M.A. degree from Harvard University.
Dosmann, Michael. “A Continuing Legacy: Hybrid Marvels of Wilson Plant Introductions.” Silva, The newsmagazine of the Arnold Arboretum. Fall/Winter 2007-2008 [pdf].
Howard, Richard A. “E. H. Wilson as a Botanist (Part I).” Arnoldia, 40:3 (1980) [pdf].
Howard, Richard A. “E. H. Wilson as a Botanist (Part II).” Arnoldia, 40:4 (1980) [pdf].
Numerous publications and natural historians have acknowledged Wilson’s achievements in photography. The Archive of the Arnold Arboretum is fortunate to curate thousands of his original glass plate negatives, along with many original artifacts and documents of his expeditions. On the eve of Wilson’s first expedition to China for the Arnold Arboretum, director Charles Sargent emphatically stated:
I write again to remind you of the very great importance of the photograph business in your new journey. A good set of photographs are really about as important as anything you can bring back with you. I hope therefore you will not fail to provide yourself with the very best possible instrument you can, irrespective of cost, and it ought to be large enough to take pictures 8 1/2 x 6 1/2, and you ought to get a stout leather case in which to have it carried. It would be well too, to take along a small instrument in case of accident. The large instrument only means another porter, and that is not a very important item. Bring, too, enough plates and films with you as there will certainly be a large amount of material to photograph.
–Charles Sprague Sargent, letter November 6, 1906.
The instrument chosen was a Sanderson whole-plate field camera capable of recording both great detail and broad perspectives without distortion. Although not formally trained as a photographer, Wilson proved a natural talent. Indeed many of the landscapes, buildings, plants and people he photographed offer stunning views of early twentieth-century China. Wilson continued to photograph throughout Asia, and during the 1920’s captured over 500 views of notable New England trees.
The Library and Archive of the Arnold Arboretum is an excellent resource for the study of Wilson’s travels and photography.
For example, the recently published book by Yin Kaipu, Tracing one hundred years of change, places Wilson’s photographs side-by-side with Kaipu’s more recent photographs of the same locations and vantage points in China. In many cases, Kaipu even managed to interview the descendents of persons originally photographed by Wilson.
Wilson’s photographs of 100 magnificent trees.
Chvany, Peter J. “E. H. Wilson, Photographer.” Arnoldia 36:5 (1976) [pdf].
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 [HOLLIS].