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Ernest Wilson - explorer and plant hunter

Ernest Wilson - explorer and plant hunter

Ernest Henry ‘Chinese' Wilson was a botanist, explorer, photographer, plant collector and writer active in America, Western China and England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He gained the nickname ‘Chinese' from the many plants in China he discovered and later introduced to the West. Dr Susan Gordon highlights the legacy, life and travels of this Gloucestershire-born adventurer.

Early life and training

Ernest Henry Wilson was born on 15 February 1876 at Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, England, the eldest of six children of Henry Wilson, a railway worker, and his wife, Annie (née Curtis).

A photographic portrait of Ernest Henry WilsonPhotographic portrait of Ernest Henry 'Chinese' Wilson.

While he was still a young child, Wilson moved with his family to Monkspath, near Shirley, in Warwickshire. There he attended Shirley Schools [1].

On leaving school at the age of 13, Wilson was apprenticed at the nurseries of Messrs Hewitt of Solihull in Warwickshire. Later, in 1893, at the age of 16, he was employed as a gardener at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, where he worked under W. B. Latham and enrolled in evening classes at Birmingham Technical School, winning the Queen's prize in botany [2].

In January 1897, at the age of 21, Wilson left Birmingham and started work at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. A year or so later he began studying to become a teacher of botany at the Royal College of Science in South Kensington.

Soon afterwards, Kew's director, William Thistleton-Dyer, recommended Wilson to the Chelsea-based nursery firm of James Veitch & Sons as someone particularly well-suited to be trained to travel to China in order to collect and bring back seeds. The nursery required seeds of Davidia involucrata, also known as the dove tree or handkerchief tree (originally discovered in 1869 by Abbé Armand David, a French missionary, travelling in China), as well as other seeds and living plants.

Wilson signed a three-year agreement with Veitch on 27 March 1899.

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 [3]. 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 [4].

'Being unable to speak any Chinese, I travelled very much as a parcel and enjoyed the trip,' Wilson later recalled [5].

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 [6].

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.

Second trip to China

On 8 June 1902, Wilson married Ellen, née Ganderton, (born around 1872, died 1930), the daughter of a Warwickshire gardener from Edgbaston.

Six months later, he returned to China in January 1903 to search out the yellow poppywort, Meconpsis integrifoloa, on a second trip for the Veitch nursery. From 1903 to 1904 he collected over 500 seed samples and 2400 herbarium specimens. He also started contributing regularly to the periodical press, publishing a series of articles in the Gardeners' Chronicle.

Wilson returned to England in March 1905 and in January 1906 was appointed botanical assistant at the Imperial Institute of Science in London. Wilson's only child, Muriel Primrose, was born four months later on 21 May 1906.

Trips for the Arnold Arboretum

That same year, in early December 1906, Professor Charles Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston asked Wilson to make a third trip to China, this time on their behalf. A formal agreement was drawn up on 27 December and from 1907 to 1909 Wilson explored western Hupeh and western Szechuan.

Wilson's success as a collector for the Arnold Arboretum in these areas between 1907 and 1909 led to a second Chinese expedition for them in 1910, this time to collect cones and conifer seeds in the central and southwestern parts of China.

It was during this adventure that nearly 7,000 bulbs of Lilium regale, the regal lily, were collected and introduced to the West by Wilson.

This would, however, prove to be one of his most dangerous plant hunts: when he wastravelling between Sungpan and Chentu in September 1910, his sedan chair was caught in a landslide. Wilson broke his leg in two places in the accident and was lamed, suffering from what he referred to as his ‘lily limp' for the rest of his life.


After spending several months in hospital in Chentu, Wilson returned to Boston from China in March 1911 and began working at the Arnold Arboretum, assisting Professor Sargent, Alfred Rehder and others, for the next six years, with the compilation of a three-volume text, Plantae Wilsonianae.

During this period he also wrote a large number of his own botanical and horticultural articles and a book, A Naturalist in Western China (1913), in which he describes all four visits to China, those for Veitch and those for the Arnold Arboretum.

Wilson often carried a Sanderson plate camera and portable dark room on his plant-hunting exercises, hence the book was richly illustrated with his own photographs. These recorded for posterity not only the local flora and fauna, but also the local people, places and customs, and are remarkable as social, as well as scientific, visual documents.

Further trips

During World War One, Wilson was again off on plant-hunting expeditions, this time taking his wife and child along.

In January 1914 Sargent sent him to Japan, where he chiefly collected blossoming Japanese cherries as well as Kurume azaleas for the Arnold Arboretum.

After returning to Boston in 1915, Wilson went on to collect in the Japanese islands of Bonin, Liukiu, and Formosa. Two years later he was in north Korea and Taiwan. Over the course of these trips, he gathered seeds, living plants and 30,000 herbarium specimens reflecting some 3,000 species in the region. In 1916, he published Cherries of Japan and Conifers and Taxads of Japan followed, in 1917 by Aristocrats of the Gardens.

After the war, in 1919, Wilson was appointed assistant director of the Arnold Arboretum. A year later he published The Romance of Our Trees and embarked on yet another plant-hunting expedition, this time to Australia and New Zealand, Java, Malaya, India and South Africa. In 1921, he published A Monograph on Azaleas (in collaboration with Rehder).

Wilson returned to the Arboretum a year or so later and from 1922 to 1927 taught there. In 1925, he published Lilies of Eastern China and America's Greatest Garden: the Arnold Arboretum, followed by a second edition of Aristocrats of the Garden in 1926.

In 1927, upon the death of Sargent, Wilson became the Arboretum's keeper. He also wrote other fully illustrated accounts of his travels as well as popular books on gardening such as: Plant Hunting, in two volumes (1927). This was quickly followed by More Aristocrats of the Garden (1928), China, Mother of Gardens (1929), Aristocrats Amongst Trees (1930) and If I Were to Make a Garden (1931) the latter being published posthumously.

On 15 October 1930, Wilson, along with his wife, was fatally injured in a car accident outside Worcester, Massachusetts. Their remains were buried at the Mont-Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Canada.

A Wilson memorial garden in Chipping Camden commemorates his life and the impact his work made on the world of botany and horticulture, through the thousands of new plants and trees he was able to discover and introduce as a result of his plant-hunting adventures.


1) Briggs, Roy W., ‘Chinese' Wilson: A Life of Ernest H. Wilson 1876-1930 (London: HMSO, 1993), p. 9.

2) Mabberley, D. J., ‘Wilson, Ernest Henry (1876-1930)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

3) This was for a salary of £100 plus expenses for the first year. Briggs, op. cit., p. 12.

4) Wilson, Ernest, Aristocrats of the Gardens (London: Williams & Norgate, 1938) p. 285.

5) Ibid., p. 284.

6) Ibid., p. 286.