Ernest Wilson - explorer and plant hunter
- Written by Susan Gordon
Wilson's first trip to China
On 11 April 1899, after training for six months with the nurseryman George Harrow at the Coombe Wood Nursery, run by Harry Veitch, Wilson embarked on his first trip to China . This was the start of his association with the Veitch family and the beginning of a highly successful and memorable career in plant exploration.
Wilson set sail on the Cunard steam packet ship the SS Pavonia from Liverpool for China by way of the United States, visiting first the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts from 23 to 25 April and then departing from San Francisco, California on 6 May.
Upon his arrival in Hong Kong on 3 June 1899, after about a month at sea, Wilson first went to south west Yunnan to meet with the amateur botanist and plant collector, Dr Augustine Henry (1857-1930) in Szemao, arriving there on 24 September.
Henry, who collected plants and herbarium material for Kew, had spent several years in China as port medical officer and in the employ of its Imperial Maritime Customs Service as an assistant.
From him, Wilson gained a wealth of advice and further valuable instruction and information on the whereabouts of the rare flowering Davidia plant, and on the flora of central China in general .
'Being unable to speak any Chinese, I travelled very much as a parcel and enjoyed the trip,' Wilson later recalled .
He then travelled from Shanghai to Ichang (Yichang) on the Yangtsze River, in the heart of China, arriving on 24 January 1900. For the next two years this became the headquarters from which Wilson made his - at times - treacherous and often physically challenging botanical explorations .
Narrowly escaping outbreaks of plague and rebellion and constantly battling with the elements, Wilson located and collected the seeds of the Davidia in Hupeh (Hubei). Two years afterwards, he returned to England.