Ernest Wilson, Collecting in China and Japan

In April 1902 Ernest “Chinese” Wilson (1876–1930) arrived back in England from his first plant-collecting expedition. He brought with him 35 Wardian cases of plants, seeds of 305 plant species, and herbarium specimens of 906 species. Between 1899 and 1919, Wilson undertook five expeditions to China and three to other parts of the world, from which he sent back to Britain and the United States more than 1,000 garden plants—perhaps as many as 2,000—and about 16,000 herbarium specimens.

Wilson’s 1902 haul included Actinidia deliciosa. This plant is known in China as mihoutau and has been cultivated for many centuries for its fruit, which is used in many traditional recipes and in Chinese medicine. Robert Fortune had sent specimens of it to London, but Actinidia plants are dioecious—they have separate male and female plants—and Fortune collected only female plants, so those grown in England were incapable of fruiting. Wilson found mihoutau growing at Yichang, in Jiangxi Province, where he had established his base and where there was a small community of foreigners to whom Wilson warmly recommended it. Isabel Fraser (1863–1942), a New Zealand schoolteacher and evangelist at the Church of Scotland mission in Yichang, shared Wilson’s enthusiasm. When she returned home in 1904, she took some seeds with her and gave them to a family of horticulturists. The result grew into a global industry based on improved varieties. There were problems with the name. For a time the fruits were known as Chinese gooseberries, but when they were marketed in the United States that name was deemed inappropriate so the New Zealanders exporting them thought to give them a distinctively New Zealand–sounding name. They called them kiwifruit.

Ernest Henry Wilson was born in the small town of Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, on February 15, 1876. He attended a local school, and after leaving he found work as an assistant gardener at Hewitts Nursery in Warwickshire. When he was 16, Wilson moved to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and while working there he studied botany in the evenings at Birmingham Technical School, where he won the Queen’s Prize for botany. In 1897, aged 21, Wilson commenced work at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. While there, he won the Hooker Prize for an essay on conifers and began teaching botany at the Royal College of Science (which later became part of Imperial College of Science and Technology of the University of London).

In the late 19th century James Veitch and Sons ran the largest chain of plant nurseries in Europe, and they approached Wilson with a proposal to send him to China in search of just one plant—the dove tree (Davidia involucrata), also known as the handkerchief tree because when it is in flower the large, pure white bracts hang down, looking like handkerchiefs. Sir Harry Veitch (1840–1924), head of the company, employed a team of plant hunters, and he advised Wilson to “Stick to the one thing you’re after, and don’t spend time and money wandering about. Probably every worthwhile plant in China has now been introduced to Europe.” Wilson spent six months at the Veitch nursery before setting off for China.

Wilson traveled west and spent five days at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts. He had a letter of introduction to the director, the distinguished American botanist Charles Sprague Sargent (1841–1927), who taught him how to prepare plant specimens for long-distance transport. He also visited Sargent’s own gardens on his estate at Brookline. Wilson crossed the United States by rail and sailed from San Francisco to Hong Kong, where he arrived on June 3, 1899. He found the dove tree and spent two years collecting plants, mainly in the remote mountain valleys of Hupeh Province.

On his return to England in 1902 Wilson married Helen Ganderton, but it was not long before Veitch sent him back to China, this time in quest of the Chinese poppy (Meconopsis integrifolia). Wilson spent his time in western Szechuan Province, where one of the plants he found in 1903 was the regal lily (Lilium regale).

In 1907 Sargent asked Wilson to go back to China to find trees and shrubs suitable for American gardens. He returned to Szechuan again in 1908 and 1910, also on behalf of the Arnold Arboretum. On each visit he sent lily bulbs back to Sargent, but most of them rotted on the journey, and it was not until his third attempt that viable bulbs reached their destination and the lilies were introduced to North America. During the 1910 expedition, a rock fall crushed Wilson’s leg. He set the fracture using his camera tripod as a splint, but for the rest of his life he walked with what he called his “lily limp.”

Wilson collected cherry trees in Japan from 1911 to 1916, working for the Arnold Arboretum, and he returned with 63 varieties. In 1917 and 1918 he was hunting plants in Korea and Taiwan (then called Formosa). On his return to the United States in 1919, he was made associate director of the Arnold Arboretum. In 1921 he embarked on a two-year expedition to Australia, New Zealand, India, South America, Central America, and East Africa. In 1927 he was appointed keeper of the Arnold Arboretum. He received many honors. The Royal Horticultural Society awarded him the Victoria Medal of Honor and the Veitch Memorial Medal. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society presented him with the George Robert White Memorial Medal. He was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Harvard University awarded him an honorary M.A. degree, and Trinity College, Connecticut, gave him a D.Sc. degree.

On October 15, 1930, Wilson and his wife were driving near Worcester, Massachusetts, when their car skidded on a slippery road and fell 40 feet (12 m) down an embankment. They were both killed.