1914-1915 Expedition to Japan


1914-1915 Expedition to Japan

In 1914 E.H. Wilson returned to East Asia for the third time for the Arboretum, in spite of long-term effects of a fractured leg he suffered on his previous trip to China in 1910. Luckily for him, Japan proved to be a less rigorous environment in which to collect, as most collection sites were accessible by rail or road. While his collecting efforts in China focused almost exclusively on wild populations of plants, this trip to Japan provided Wilson the opportunity to study and collect cultivated material as well. Wilson went on to write intensely on the subject of Japanese flora, with an emphasis on flowering cherries (see link under Additional Resources). This journey also marked the first time Wilson traveled with his wife, Ellen and their daughter, Muriel.

As in past expeditions to Asia, Wilson was a prolific collector and photographer. He made hundreds of seed collections and acquired herbarium specimens from approximately 2000 individual plants. In the 1914-1915 Director’s Report, C.S. Sargent estimated that Wilson collected “ninety-two to ninety-five percent of the species of Japanese trees and shrubs.” These collections were supplemented by 619 glass plate photographs–adding to the already robust collection of East Asian images captured on his most recent two trips to China. Sargent concluded that Wilson’s collections would provide “information which will make it possible to solve many of the problems which have long perplexed the students of Japanese Trees” [Sargent, C.S. “The Arnold Arboretum.” Reports of the President and the Treasurer of Harvard College 1914 – 15. Vol. XIII March 15, 1916].

Wilson traversed the country from south to north, mostly collecting near passenger train routes and roads–a stark contrast to how he collected in China, where he traveled by foot or occasionally sedan chair. In February of 1914 he arrived in Tokyo by ship and then quickly traveled south to Yakushima, a humid subtropical island off the southern tip of Japan. February and March were spent in southern Japan, moving to central Honshu from April through June. In July and August the Wilson family visited Hokkaido, Hondo, and present day Sakhalin, and then returned to central and southern Japan in the autumn. Wilson’s journey was cut short by several months when Sargent demanded his return due to the the onset of the First World War. Wilson intended to enlist in the British Army, but was precluded because of his severe leg injury.

For a detailed account of Wilson’s travels in Japan see Howard, Richard A. “E.H. Wilson as a Botanist (Part II).” Arnoldia 40(4) 1980 [pdf].

Additional Resources

Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) papers, 1896-1952: Guide [pdf].

Wilson, Ernest H. 1916. The cherries of Japan. Harvard University Press. [link]

Meet the Explorers – Ernest Henry Wilson [link].

Papers of Ernest Henry Wilson, 1896-1952; Series: W.VI: The Fifth Expedition to Japan, February 1914-January 1915; Field notes on collected plants and seeds, February 18-October 24, 1914. III EHW, box 10, folder 1. Arnold Arboretum Library of Harvard University, Boston, Mass. [link].

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 Henry Wilson and the Cherry Blossoms of Japan.” Library Leaves, March 10, 2014 [link].

Primack, Richard and Ohkubo, Tatsuhiro. “Ancient and Notable Trees of Japan: Then and Now.” Arnoldia 65(3) 2008 [pdf].