1910-1911 Second Expedition to China


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1910-1911 Second Expedition to China

Ernest Henry Wilson’s second expedition for the Arnold Arboretum took him to China again in 1910. Having already traveled there twice while working for Veitch Nurseries, and once for the Arnold Arboretum, Wilson was already known as an accomplished collector. As stated in the agreement arranged by Arboretum Director Charles Sargent, Wilson was to collect for both the Arboretum and private subscribers “botanical specimens, seeds, information about plants, photographs, etc.” while on his journey. In particular, he was to focus upon the conifers that he had been unable to find on the 1907-09 Expedition, and the primary region of focus was to be northwestern Sichuan, at the edge of Tibet. He was also to target Lilium regale, the stately and beautiful regal lily he had collected previously, but whose bulbs had not survived transit back to the west.

The Wilson family departed Boston in March of 1910, and after dropping his wife and daughter off in Birmingham, England, Ernest arrived Beijing in May via the Trans-Siberian Railway. Once in Yichang, Hubei Province, he hired his team of Chinese collectors and attendants, many of whom had worked for him several times before; they departed on the 4th of June for Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. The journey through northwestern Hubei and eastern Sichuan was an arduous one, but allowed them to collect some seed vouchers from an array of plants along the way; additional seed collections from the same plants would follow in autumn. Soon after their late July arrival in Chengdu, the team headed north to Songpan County, one of Wilson’s favorite regions. They explored what is now the Huanglong Nature Reserve to the southeast of Songpan town, and the Min River whose steep banks was the habitat of the regal lily.

The Min River Valley was a hot and arid place to be in late August and early September, and it seems as if the life as the intrepid explorer was wearing on Wilson a great deal. After recapping the day’s events in his journal on the 3rd of September, he wrote “I am certainly getting very tired of the wandering life and long for the end to come. I seem never to have done anything else than wander, wander through China.” This somber line would prove not only to be the final one in his journal, but clairvoyant as well, for the following morning Wilson’s party was caught in a landslide where a falling boulder broke his leg below the knee in two places. After splinting his leg with the camera tripod, his team carried him in the sedan chair for two-and-a-half days to Chengdu. While Wilson recuperated in Chengdu and his leg healed, his crew returned to the field to make a number of seed collections of plants spotted earlier in the season.

In January of 1911, Wilson was well enough to begin the trek back to America, finally arriving in Boston in March. Despite the abbreviated duration of this expedition, he was able to amass germplasm collections of 462 species, including many collections of orchids (Cypripedium spp.) and lilies (Lilium spp.) in addition to the woody plants on his target list. He also collected 2,500 specimens for the herbarium and captured 374 vivid photographs. Pleased with the results, Sargent praised Wilson in the 1909-10 Director’s Report for the Arboretum, saying: “[Wilson] succeeded in securing the seeds of all the cone-bearing trees from the mountains near the Tibetan frontier. To obtain information about these trees and to introduce them into cultivation were the principal objects of this journey; and the Arboretum is fortunate in having been able to distribute in this country and in Europe the seeds of these import trees.”

Additional Resources

Howard, Richard A. “E. H. Wilson as a Botanist” Arnoldia 40(3) 1980 [pdf].

Clausen, Kristin S. and Hu, Shiu-Ying “Mapping the Collection Localities of E. H. Wilson in China” Arnoldia 40(3) 1980 [pdf].

Specimens collected by E. H. Wilson in China in 1910 and 1911.

Papers of Ernest Henry Wilson, 1896-1952; Series: W.V: Wilson’s Fourth Expedition to China–-The Second for the Arnold Arboretum, 1910-1911; Agreement between Harvard College and EHW, signed by Charles Sprague Sargent and EHW, February 26, 1910. III EHW, box 9, folder 1. Arnold Arboretum Library of Harvard University, Boston, Mass.

Wilson, Ernest Henry. Plant Hunting. Boston, MA: Stratford, 1927 [HOLLIS].