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Ernest Henry Wilson (1876 - 1930)

Born on February 15th 1876, in the Cotswold village of Chipping Camden, Ernest Wilson had a love for plants from a very early age. At sixteen he was employed as an apprentice gardener's boy at a local nursery in Solihull, and then moved on to the Birmingham Botanic Gardens. He studied at Birmingham Technical School in the evenings, and there received the Queen's Prize for botany. In 1897 he began work at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where he won the Hooker Prize for an essay on the order Coniferae. He was considering becoming a teacher of botany but was offered a position with the firm of James Veitch & Sons to work as their plant collector in China.

The French missionaries, Père Armand David and Père Jean Marie Delavay had for many years been collecting plants in China, and shipping the dried herbarium specimens back to their fellow botanists in Paris. Wardian cases were expensive, and neither available to, nor within the budget of an impoverished missionary, so what little material came out of China in the latter half of the 19th Century was just enough to tease and tantalize nurserymen and botanists in Europe. It was this knowledge of the vast variety of exotic flora that had inspired Sir Harry Veitch to look for a suitable collector to work in China.

Davidia involucrata, a tree of legendary beauty that was one of the first plants introduced to the west by E. H. Wilson. By photographer J.W.Kingsley.

Wilson traveled west, via the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts, where, during a brief five-day visit, he learned some of the newest techniques for shipping seeds and plants safely. While there he met the formidable Charles Sargent, who would play a significant role in Wilson's future expeditions. He continued across the continent by train, and sailed from San Francisco on May 6th 1899, reaching Hong Kong by June 3rd. An outbreak of plague meant that he was unable to take an interpreter with him on the road to Hanoi.

The entire region was affected by increasing political unrest, and although his journey up the Red River to the boarder between French Indochina (Vietnam) and Yunnan province was largely uneventful, he was forced to wait several weeks in the town of Loa Chi before proceeding. Finally he was able to leave the suffocating heat and constant threat of malaria behind him, as he traveled west to Szemao (Simao) to meet with Augustine Henry.

Henry had information on where a specimen of the now almost legendary Dove Tree, Davidia involucrata, was growing, and it took Wilson 10 days to travel upriver to find the one tree he had come halfway around the world to see. It had been cut down to make way for a new house. As he tried to make the most of it, he investigated the local flora and found Actinidia deliciosa, now known throughout the world as 'Kiwi Fruit' (this was because of a very successful marketing campaign, the vines are in fact not native to New Zealand). Barely a month later, however, Wilson did find a magnificent grove of Davidia and was able to collect a large quantity of the seed.

Earnest Henry "Chinese" Wilson with his wife Helen (neé Ganderton) and their daughter Muriel Primrose in a photograph taken in Japan.

All in all, he collected thirty-five Wardian cases full of tubers, corms, bulbs and rhizomes, and dried herbarium specimens representing some 906 plant species along with the seed of over 300 plant species. Some of the plants introduced to western cultivation from his first expedition include Acer griseum, Berberis julianae, Clematis armandii, Clematis montana var. 'Rubens', Ilex pernyi, Jasminum mesnyi and Primula pulverulenta. The credit for introducing Davidia involucrata must go to Père Paul Guillaume Farges who returned to France in 1897 with thirty-seven seeds, one of which finally grew.


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