1917-1919 Ernest H. Wilson Expedition to Eastern Asia


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

1917-1919 Ernest H. Wilson Expedition to Eastern Asia

First World War national loyalties brought tensions to the Arnold Arboretum staff. By later 1916, Charles Sargent thought it wise to dispatch Ernest Henry Wilson to Eastern Asia, again accompanied by his family, on what would become his most successful expedition to date. From 1917 to 1919, he collected germplasm in the wild and from cultivation from various locales including Taiwan (known then as Formosa), Japan, and Korea.

After leaving Boston, Wilson first arrived in the Ryukyu Islands of Japan in February 1917, beginning a hectic timeline of adventuring in Asia. He continued to the Bonin Islands in April, before arriving in Korea in June. Wilson spent the remainder of 1917 exploring Korea before heading to Taiwan (Formosa), in February of 1918. After three months in Taiwan, he went back to Japan for two months, to Korea for three more months, and spent the remainder of the year in Taiwan.

Wilson was enamored of the gymnosperms of Taiwan, writing later that he had come to “investigate the forests in general and in particular to secure seeds or living plants of these remarkable trees.”1 Guided by Japanese officials and over 40 crewmembers, he collected germplasm from large and impressive taxa such as the Taiwania (Taiwania cryptomeioides) and the Taiwan cypress (Chamaecyparis formosensis).

The most famous collection made during this expedition was actually from cultivated specimens: the Kurume azaleas. In Kurume, Japan, a city on the island of Kyushu, Wilson ventured to a nursery run by Mr. Kijiro Akashi. Akashi devoted forty years of his life to developing dwarf hybrid azaleas, and had over 250 varieties at the time of Wilson’s visit. Wilson chose what he thought were the fifty best selections–the “Wilson Fifty”. The plants that were not hardy in the Boston area were kept by Sargent at Holm Lea, Sargent’s estate in Brookline, and at the Ames estate in North Easton. The cultivars were displayed at the spring flower shows of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and other organizations in the area.

In early 1919, Wilson and his family prepared for their return to America. His two-year expedition yielded a collection of over 30,000 dried specimens representing over 3000 species. He had taken over 700 photographs on the trip, of the Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese flora and landscape.

Excerpt from a letter from Wilson to Sargent, 1917:

“Now turning to the personal side. I would rather attempt such an expedition now than at a later date and am as fit to carry through successfully as I ever shall be. With this war still on and no end in sight I have no desire to return to America, for I am happier here and can do better work in the woods and alone. When peace is declared or in sight I shall be anxious to return but until then I have no desire to repeat the life lived during the years 1915 and 1916. I am here with my family and when next I get settled down I shall not readily want to move for breaking up home, storing furniture, etc. is no light matter. To me it appears that if the money can be found now it’s the opportune time for them Arboretum to complete in the Orient the work it began with your own journey to Japan in 1892. I have thought over this matter long and seriously and the result is this letter which I submit for your earnest consideration.”

Additional Resources

1Wilson, Ernest H. Plant Hunting. Stratford Co., 1927.

Briggs, Roy W. ‘Chinese’ Wilson. HMSO Publications, 1993.

DeWolf, Gordon P. “Albizia julibrissin and Its Cultivar ‘Ernest Wilson’” Arnoldia 28(4-5) 1968. [pdf]

Howard, Richard A. “E.H. Wilson as a Botanist [part II]” Arnoldia 40(4) 1980. [pdf]

Letter to Charles Sprague Sargent from F.R.S. Baulfour regarding “subscription” to Korea and Formosa expedition.