1907-1909 Expedition to China


1907-1909 Expedition to China

Although this was E.H. Wilson’s third trip to China, it was his first for the Arnold Arboretum. On his two previous trips to China, he was under contract with Veitch Nurseries in Surrey, England. This trip was largely funded through donations and subscriptions solicited by C.S. Sargent from the Friends of the Arboretum. While Wilson’s Veitch trips did make notable contributions to science, yielding plants, observations, and herbarium vouchers, his Arboretum expedition was to focus less exclusively on plants of ornamental potential and more on the rigorous documentation of the woody plants of temperate China. This emphasis on floristic study meant Wilson would not just collect germplasm (seeds and seedlings, primarily), but a broader array of herbarium vouchers as well as photographs of the plants in their native habitats. Because of his considerable experience in East Asia, Wilson was also responsible for facilitating the collection of economically valuable plants for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in coordination with plant explorer Frank Meyer (in return, Meyer would collect non-economic plants for the Arboretum). In addition to collaborating with the USDA, Wilson assisted Walter R. Zappey of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in navigating the political and cultural landscape of urban and rural China as he made his taxidermy collections.

Wilson collected in China from February 1907 through April 1909. The first year he focused on collections in Western Hubei. During the second year he traveled to Sichuan and Tibet via the Yangtze River. The two-year expedition would represent Wilson’s greatest collecting effort in China. With the help of Chinese assistants, Wilson was able to amass 2,262 seed collections and 1,473 collections of live plants or cuttings. He also collected 30,000 specimens for the herbarium and captured 720 photographs. By spring 1909 the Arboretum had already distributed 11,695 seeds and plants collected on the expedition to other institutions and propagators. Sargent, particularly pleased with the results, noted in the 1908-09 Director’s Report, “[The] trees and shrubs of western China will become common in gardens and plantations.”

This two-year expedition was exceptionally well-documented and has been written about extensively. Of particular note are the images captured by Wilson throughout Hubei and Sichuan provinces on this and his final expedition to China. Wilson’s images are cataloged in the Arboretum’s Image Collection and the Harvard Library image database, VIA.

Additional Resources

Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) papers, 1896-1952: Guide. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University [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].

Pearson, Lisa. “Ernest H. Wilson’s Travel Documents.” Library Leaves, July 29, 2014 [link].