Plants collected on this Expedition
|Plant ID||Accession Date||Received As||Origin||Source|
- Event Type
- Collection Type
- Germplasm, Herbarium Specimens
- Arnold Arboretum Participants
- Ernest H. Wilson
In early 1907, Ernest Henry Wilson began his third trip to China, and his first for the Arnold Arboretum. Over the next two years, he would travel hundreds of miles collecting plants and seeds in Hubei and Sichuan Provinces. This trip can be considered Wilson’s greatest collecting effort in China.
On his two previous expeditions to China for the Veitch Nurseries, he collected both herbaceous and woody plants of possible commercial value. His Arboretum expedition focused less on ornamental plants and more on rigorous documentation of the woody plants of temperate China. It yielded plants, seeds, and herbarium vouchers, as well as extensive notes on the natural conditions under which these materials grew.
Floristic Study of China
This emphasis on floristic study meant Wilson would not only collect germplasm germplasm: , but a broader array of herbarium vouchers, and photographs of the plants in their native habitats.
The trip was largely funded through monetary donations and subscriptions solicited by Arboretum director Charles Sprague Sargent from supporters of the Arboretum and it’s mission. An additional source of revenue would come from the sale of lily bulbs to Farquhar Nursery Company of Boston.
Because of his experience in eastern Asia, Wilson facilitated the collection of economically valuable plants for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in coordination with plant explorer Frank Nicholas Meyer. In return, Meyer collected ornamental non-economic plants for the Arboretum.
Ultimately, Sargent was not satisfied with the arrangement. In his opinion, Meyer had not collected enough material for the Arboretum. He also resented that Meyer’s supervisor David Fairchild wrote directly to Wilson asking him to search for specific plants.
In addition to collaborating with the USDA, Wilson oversaw zoologist Walter Reaves Zappey of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Zappey led the John E. Thayer Expedition to collect bird and animal specimens. In addition to helping Zappey navigate the political and cultural landscape of urban and rural China as he made his collections, Wilson kept the financial accounts and directed the shipment of Zappey’s specimens.
Wilson arrived in China in February 1907, soon making his way to the city that would be his base for the next three years, Yichang, Hubei. During 1907, Wilson collected in western Hubei, primarily in Fang and Xingshan Counties (Fang Hsien and Hsing-shan Hsien), an area that today includes the Shennongjia Forest Preserve. Part of the winter of 1907-1908 was spent in Changyang Tujia Autonomous County (Changyang Hsien) near Yichang.
He and his team set off for Sichuan in the spring of 1908. They based themselves in the city of Chengdu (Chengtu or Chentoo) for the season and from there made trips of sometimes a month or more, out into the backcountry. Portions of May, June, and July were spent in the Kangding (Tachien lu) area. At the end of July he explored Washan before returning to Chengdu in August. During September he collected in the Dadu River valley, then returned to the Chengdu plains. He alternated between the Dadu area and Chengdu through the fall and into the early winter.
January 1909, found him back in Wanzhou (Wan Hsien), Chongqing Municipality, and then in Yichang. He and Walter Zappey spent part of that month and a portion of the next hunting for bird and animal specimens for the Thayer Expedition. March and April were spent cleaning and packing his collections and preparing them for his departure at the end of April. The collections sailed to America from Shanghai. Wilson returned by the Trans-Siberian Railway to Europe and steamship to the United States.
Wilson’s Chinese Assistants
Wilson amassed 1,935 collections of seeds, live plants, and cuttings, and 32,500 herbarium specimens, during his two Arboretum expeditions to China. He would not have been as productive were it not for the assistance of a team of trained Chinese collectors who accompanied him on his expedition.
Who Were They?
These men, who hailed from Yichang, Hubei and its environs, had been with Wilson since his first journeys for Veitch Nurseries and may also have assisted Augustine Henry in his plant collecting prior to 1900. They continued their association with Wilson during his two trips for the Arboretum.
Wilson recorded the men’s occupations but unfortunately not their names. Several were farmers and several were townsmen of Yichang. The man second from the right was a doctor. It would take over 100 years, but Professor Yin Kaipu, of the Chengdu Institute of Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in his Wilson re-photography project, has determined that the bearded man third from the right was named Wang Tianguan, and the man fourth from the right had the family name Yin.
Were it not for their assistance, Wilson might have died during his 1910 expedition. He and his team were caught in an avalanche south of Songpan, Sichuan, and his leg was crushed. They carried Wilson to medical treatment in Chengdu and then gathered lily bulbs for him while he recovered in hospital.
“A good set of photographs are really about as important as anything you can bring back with you…provide yourself with the very best possible Instrument you can…there will certainly be a large amount of material to photograph.”Charles Sargent, November 1906
During the preparations for this expedition, Wilson purchased a top of the line Sanderson camera built to his specifications. With it, he captured 720 photographs on 8.5 x 6.5 inch (21.5 x 15.25 centimeter) glass plate negatives. The camera, with it’s long focal length, as well suited to photographing landscapes and making portraits of trees.
Wilson did not confine himself to botanical subjects but also took images of the people and cultural objects he encountered on his journey. The Arboretum Archives hold all 720 glass plate negatives, as well as printed copies in albums and on card mountings. They have been digitized and may be viewed on Hollis Images.
Back in Boston
While on this expedition, Wilson regularly sent plant material back to the Arboretum. By spring 1909, Arboretum propagator Jackson Thornton Dawson had already distributed 11,695 seeds and plants collected on this trip to other institutions and propagators.
Sargent, particularly pleased with the results, noted in his 1908-09 Director’s Report, “[The] trees and shrubs of western China will become common in gardens and plantations.”
Wilson wrote A Naturalist in Western China detailing his adventures collecting plants in Hubei and Sichuan.
Read Richard Howard’s article “Ernest Wilson as Botanist” in Arnoldia.
All of Wilson’s images from this expedition may be seen in Hollis Images.