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1927 Map of the Arboretum

1914 - 1915: Expedition to Japan

Ernest Wilson photographed his assistant in June 1914 with Mount Ontake, Honshu Province, in the background. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.
Ernest Wilson photographed his assistant in June 1914 with Mount Ontake, Honshu Province, in the background.

Plants collected on this Expedition

Plant ID Accession Date Received As Origin Source

Expedition Stats


Event Type
Collection Type
Germplasm, Herbarium Specimens
Arnold Arboretum Participants
Ernest H. Wilson
Ernest Wilson standing behind a bench between two unidentified women, with Amah, Muriel, and Ellen Wilson seated. Photographed in Japan in 1914.
Ernest Wilson standing behind a bench between two unidentified women, with Amah (Mrs. Wilson’s guide), Muriel, and Ellen Wilson seated. Photographed in Japan in 1914. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

In 1914, Ernest Henry Wilson returned to eastern Asia for the third time, on an expedition to collect plants in Japan for the Arnold Arboretum.

He still suffered the long-term effects of the broken leg he suffered on his 1910 expedition to China. His new destination, Japan, proved to be a botanically rich but less taxing environment in which to collect, as most collection sites were accessible by rail or road. This journey also marked the first time Wilson traveled with his wife Ellen and their daughter Muriel.

As in his past expeditions, Wilson was a prolific collector and photographer. Arboretum Director Charles Sprague Sargent estimated that Wilson collected “ninety-two to ninety-five percent of the species of Japanese trees and shrubs.” An amazing achievement. He concluded that Wilson’s collections would provide “information which will make it possible to solve many of the problems which have long perplexed the students of Japanese trees,” in particular the problems surrounding the origins of flowering cherries.

A flowering cherry Prunus lannesiana at Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto, Japan, photographed by Ernest Wilson in April 1914. He notes that the flowers were semi-double, very pale pink and fragrant.
A large Manchurian alder (Alnus hirsuta var. sibirica) photographed by Ernest Wilson in April 1914 near Hakone, Japan. A flowering cherry (Prunus lannesiana f. albida) in full bloom may be seen behind.
Ernest Wilson photographed Amah, Muriel, and Ellen Wilson in May 1914 beneath the bronze torii at the Futara Shrine near Nikko, Japan. Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) trees grow around.
Ernest Wilson photographed this view of Lake Onuma, Hokkaido. The islands contained coppiced Manchurian alders (Alnus hirsuta) and Mongolian oaks (Quercus mongolica var. grosseserrata). Hokkaido Koma-ga-take volcano may be seen beyond.
Ernest Wilson photographed an unidentified man (left) and his assistant (right) posed at the base of a massive Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) in the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, Nara, Japan. He records the trunk as measuring 36 feet (12 meters) in girth.
Ernest Wilson photographed his guide (left), and his assistant (right), at the base of a Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) in the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, Nara Prefecture. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

A Journey in Japan

Wilson traversed the country from south to north, mostly collecting near train routes and roads, a stark contrast to his collecting in China, where he traveled far into the interior of the country by foot and sedan chair.

In February 1914, Wilson and his family arrived in Tokyo by ship. He quickly traveled south to Yakushima, a humid subtropical island off the southern tip of Japan. February and March were spent in the southern part of the country. He then studied the country’s flowering cherries as they began to bloom in early March in the south. Moving north, he followed them to central Honshu in April. There he stayed, exploring the region through June.

In July and August, the Wilson family visited Hokkaido and Ernest Wilson ventured as far north as Sakhalin, then part of Japan. They returned to central and southern Japan in the fall. The journey was cut short by several months when Sargent asked him to return due to the start of the First World War. They left Japan in early January 1915 on the S.S. Korea, sailing to San Francisco by way of Hawaii.

Ernest Wilson photographed this tall Japanese Cherry (Prunus serrulata var. spontanea) in Koganei near Tokyo, Japan. He recorded the height as 45 feet (14 meters), its circumference as 8 feet (2.5 meters), and 30 feet (9 meters) through the crown.
The twisting trunk of a large willow (Salix urbaniana) photographed by Ernest Wilson on the Museum grounds at the Sapporo Agricultural College, Sapporo, Hokkaido. Wilson noted that the bark was gray, and the trunk was 12 feet (3.6 meters) in girth.
A photograph by Ernest Wilson of a Japanese elm (Ulmus japonica) at the edge of the forest at Rubeshibe, Hokkaido, Japan.
Chamaecyparis pisifera
Ernest Wilson photographed the stem and roots of this Sawara cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) near Kurosawa at the base of Mount Ontake, Nagano Prefecture. He noted that the trunk was 15 feet (4.6 meters) in girth. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

Wilson’s Plant Collections

Wilson’s previous collecting efforts in China focused almost exclusively on wild populations of plants. This trip provided Wilson the opportunity to study and collect cultivated material as well. He made hundreds of seed collections and acquired herbarium specimens from approximately 2,000 individual plants.

Wilson’s Photographs

These plant collections were supplemented by 619 photographs captured on glass plate negatives. Taken on his Sanderson camera, they added to the already robust collection of Asian images captured on his most recent two trips to China. His photographs from this expedition a notable for large number of dramatic portraits of trees and for the artistic composition of his landscape views. Perhaps the less hurried pace of this trip allowed for more time to perfect his images.

In March 1914, Ernest Wilson captured this image of former pine woods devastated by the hot blast from the Sakurajima volcano near Kagoshima, Japan.
The Nakamura family pauses in their work of separating seeds from dried Japanese larch (Larix Kaempferi). Ernest Wilson photographed them at work in Nakashinden, Saitama Prefecture, Japan in September 1914.
The spectacular Kegon Waterfall near Lake Chuzenji, Nikko region, Japan in a May 1914 photograph by Ernest Wilson.
View of Yumoto village Lake Yumoto beyond in October 1914. Ernest Wilson notes that this landscape in the Nikko region was populated by Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) and Nikko fir (Abies homolepis) that form the forests in the foreground.

Dig Deeper

Wilson went on to write extensively on the subject of the Japanese flora. He published The Conifers and Taxads of Japan and The Cherries of Japan in 1916.

Richard Howard detailed Wilson’s travels in Japan in Arnoldia in 1980.

You can see all Wilson’s Japanese photographs from this trip in Hollis Images.