E. H. Wilson’s search for Davidia involucrata

November 27, 2018

Dove tree

E. H. Wilson’s search for Davidia involucrata

Dove tree

Davidia involucrata Vilmoriniana. Newport, Rhode Island. Photograph by Ernest Wilson. May 30, 1928.

Each year, the Explorer’s Garden is a riot of white when the Davidia involucrata, or dove trees, are in bloom. Before his employment at the Arboretum, a young Englishman named Ernest Henry Wilson was hired in 1899 by the Veitch Nursery firm to collect plants in China. In particular he was tasked with bringing back seeds of the Davidia involucrata, or dove tree, first collected in 1869 by the Catholic missionary Père David. Wilson was instructed to go to the home of the noted plant collector Dr. Augustine Henry, and from him learn the location of a Davidia specimen Henry had found more than a decade earlier. We pick up Wilson’s narration as recounted in Aristocrats of the Garden (1926):

“On a half-page of a notebook, Dr. [Augustine] Henry had sketched a tract of country about the size of New York State and had marked the spot where he had found growing a single tree of the Davidia, the only example he had discovered in a trip, which extended over six months…The place was among high mountains in the sparsely populated region bordering the provinces of Hupeh and Szechuan and south of the mighty Yangtsze River. This locality was my destination and this solitary tree my sole objective.

“I took a cross-country road and on the afternoon of the 25th reached the hamlet of Ma-huang-po and the house where Dr. Henry had stayed when he found the Davidia tree on May 17, 1888. Did the people remember Dr. Henry? Did they know the K’ung-tung (local name of Davidia)? To these and similar questions they pleasantly answered in the affirmative. Would someone guide me to the tree? Certainly! We sallied forth, I in the highest of spirits. After walking about two miles we came to a house rather new in appearance. Nearby was the stump of Henry’s Davidia. The tree had been cut down a year before and the trunk and branches formed the beams and posts of the house! I did not sleep during the night of April 25, 1900.

“On May 19th, when collecting near the hamlet of Ta-wan, distant some five days southwest of Ichang, I suddenly happened upon a Davidia tree in full flower! It was about fifty feet tall, in outline pyramidal, and with its wealth of blossoms was more beautiful than words can portray…Now with a wider knowledge of floral treasures of the Northern Hemisphere, I am convinced that Davidia involucrata is the most interesting and most beautiful of all trees which grow in the north temperate regions. The distinctive beauty of the Davidia is in the two snow-white connate bracts, which subtend the flower proper…The flowers and their attendant bracts are pendulous on fairly long stalks, and when stirred by the slightest breeze they resemble huge butterflies or small doves hovering amongst the trees.

“After my successful introduction of the Davidia in 1901, and its free germination in 1902, I had yet one little cup of bitterness to drain. Monsieur Maurice de Vilmorin had received seeds of the Davidia from a Roman Catholic Missionary, Père Farges, in 1897, and in 1898, one plant was raised in his arboretum at Les Barres, France. From this plant two or three cuttings and one layer were rooted. A rooted cutting was sent to Kew Gardens, another to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and the rooted layer to the Arnold Arboretum, where it is now growing freely. My employers were aware of this soon after I had been dispatched to China in 1899, but I was not, and I took my draught when the whole story was published by Monsieur Andre in the Revue Horticole, August 16, 1902, p. 377. Monsieur Vilmorin’s plant flowered for the first time in May, 1906, and proved to be the smooth-leaved variety and received the name of Davidia involucrata, var. Vilmoriniana, after an abortive attempt on the part of a French botanist (Monsieur L. A. Dode) to make it a distinct species.”

The layered cutting Wilson mentions is still alive and well at the Arboretum. It may be seen in the Explorer’s Garden and is accession 5159*A. Extensive holdings of Wilson materials in the Arboretum Archives include his collection notebooks and field diaries. We preserve the Chinese passports for this expedition that allowed Wilson and his men safe passage for gathering plants. We also have a beautiful and unique artifact, the gold pocket watch the Veitch firm gave Wilson in honor of his Davidia collections. It is engraved, “E.H. Wilson, from James Veitch, 1899-1902, Well done!”

Our exhibit Plant Exploration, Then and Now is now open at our Visitor Center in the Hunnewell Building and runs through March 12, 2019. Pay us a visit and experience Wilson’s legacy up close!

Lisa Pearson, Head of Library and Archives

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