Who Was Ernest H Wilson The Plant Hunter?

Ernest H. Wilson was not a man who boasted about his exploits.

The way to learn from his lips about his work in China, Japan, and other Far East lands was to confront him with a collection of rare or newly introduced plants from the other side of the world.

Mr. Ernest WilsonPin

Then his eyes would sparkle, and he would tell in detail about the habits of these plants, the places from which they came, the date of their discovery, and the circumstances under which they were found.

Mr. Wilson’s Valuable Plant Introductions

Many valuable plant introductions found their way to the greenhouse of Prof. Charles S. Sargent in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

It was here that Ernest Wilson often talked about his adventures. His memory was amazing.

Apparently, he never forgot a plant that had once come to his notice. And the number was huge. He introduced more than a thousand species then unknown in cultivation.

The lasting value of Wilson’s introductions is just being realized in this country. His regal lily has, of course, spread all over the land, but his woody plants have required more time to prove themselves.

Now, we can pick out dozens at any time which deserve a place in all gardens large enough to include them. 

England is even better off in this respect, for that country has a significant collection of Wilson rhododendrons, which thrive incredibly well there.

It is a matter of interest that over 100 plants introduced by Ernest Wilson have been given first-class certificates or awards of merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Personal honors received in his lifetime were many. He was awarded at least 100 medals, including the Victorian Medal of Honor, the highest award of the R.H.S.

Chinese Plants In Honor Of Mr. Wilson

In his lifetime, also, Mr. Wilson had the satisfaction of having his name borne by 60 Chinese plants.

The Chinese people appreciated his work in their country. A few days after his untimely death in an automobile accident, a letter was received asking for a collection of Chinese plants of his choosing for Chinese gardens.

Mr. Wilson liked the Chinese people, too, rather better, I have heard him say than he liked the Japanese.

Perhaps he liked them too well, for he invested in the securities of Chinese railroads, which unfortunately did not pay off.

Success In Obtaining Important New Plants

One reason for Mr. Wilson’s success in hunting for new plants in China was his ability to get along well with the natives.

He did not attempt to learn the language but relied upon the intelligence and goodwill of the carefully chosen men who made up his party.

This friendly attitude enabled Mr. Wilson to obtain certain important plants discovered previously by Charles Manes but never reached civilization since his shipment was destroyed by the natives who resented Maries’ high-handed treatment of them.

Mr. Wilson’s prestige was partly maintained because he never went anywhere without his sedan chair, which was a badge of authority even though seldom used.

In the more challenging mountain trails, the chair had to be taken apart, and when a falling boulder broke his leg, the chair was called upon to provide splints.

The luggage on these journeys also included an old-fashioned camera for which large glass plates were used.

Handling this part of Mr. Wilson’s impedimenta gave the plant limiter much trouble, especially when he had to cross rivers and gorges on ropes.

Once he saw the sad spectacle of his camera and plates sinking to the bottom of a river in which his boat was wrecked.

Discovering Kolkwitzia Amabilis (Beauty Bush)

One difficulty that confronts the plant hunter is that he can’t see a plant in flower and collect seeds simultaneously.

Thus he is forced to gamble on some material, and it was this way with Kolkwitzia amabilis, which eventually was given the common name of Beauty Bush.

Mr. Wilson found this shrub when it was bearing seed. He realized it was a plant he was unfamiliar with and collected several seeds.

Several years later, of course, before he saw the shrub in bloom and realized that he had found a treasure.

Besides this shrub, he was very fond of the crab Malus hupehensis mainly because of its cherry-like form. This now grows in many gardens under the name of Malus theifera.

I, myself, like his Neillia sinensis, partly because it is very easy to grow and propagate.

I have his Sorbaria Arborea, which has large and strikingly handsome flower heads, but it demands too much room. On the other hand, his cotoneasters I find very useful.

The Most Widely Traveled Plant Hunter

In the not-too-long list of important plant hunters, Mr. Wilson was by far the most widely traveled.

He penetrated parts of Hupeh so nearly inaccessible that no white man had been there before him.

But leaving China and Japan, Korea, and Formosa, he journeyed to South Africa, Australia, India, New Zealand, and Tasmania for the Arnold Arboretum, mainly as an emissary of goodwill and to establish valuable botanical contacts.

In South Africa, he added many superb subjects to his rapidly growing collection of botanical photographs.

Mr. Wilson’s photographs, incidentally, have done much to reveal to the readers of his books the nature of the mountainous country in which he did a good part of his traveling.

The man was a prolific writer, especially in his later years. His style tacked the literary quality that added to Reginald Farrer’s reputation, but it was both intense and smooth, and whatever he wrote was easy to read.

Any publisher who might bring out a new edition of his books would be doing a public service.

Mr. Ernest Wilson’s Other Interests

Mr. Wilson revealed in some of his hooks, for example, “China, Mother of Gardens,” that he had many interests beyond botany and horticulture.

He liked to study the habits of persons and plants, and he threw many sidelights on the characters of the distant people with whom he mingled.

He was interested, also in politics, but particularly the politics of his native land, England.

Many a night, he and Tom Roland, known in his day as the best plantsman in America and like Wilson a Britisher, sat for hours in an old-time Boston restaurant arguing over Great Britain’s policies.

The arguments were heated, too, for they supported opposite parties and held opposite viewpoints.

Sometimes I sat in with them, but I might as well have been absent. For the moment, they were living in a land beyond the sea.