In March of 1919—one hundred years ago—Ernest Henry Wilson returned from his sixth and final plant collecting expedition to eastern Asia. The trip had begun in Yokohama, Japan, in January of 1917, and he traveled widely, tracing his way from Okinawa to Korea, even touching briefly into China. In early 1918, he sailed for Taiwan, where he was enamored with the subtropical conifers. According to his own tally, he collected more than seven thousand herbarium specimens, and he would return for seed in the fall. Taiwan, then known as Formosa, had been occupied by Japanese troops for more than two decades. Wilson’s travels were conducted with a Japanese botanist named Ryozo Kanehira, and initial collecting locations were recommended by Bunzo Hayata, a botanist at the Imperial University of Tokyo. The following excerpts come from Wilson’s handwritten letters to Charles Sprague Sargent, the director of the Arnold Arboretum. Italics have been added.

January 17, 1918 | Yokohama, Japan

My arrangements are all completed for the trip to Formosa & I leave here in the morning. I plan to stay in Formosa for about ten weeks if the money in hand be enough to enable me to do so.

January 25, 1918 | Taipeh, Formosa

Just a note to let you know that I have reached Formosa & that everything is favorable to a successful visit. I arrived here on the 22nd & leave tomorrow (26th) for Arisan where the giant trees are.… The officials, one & all, promise every assistance & there is no doubt but that they mean it. A Mr. Kanehira, who speaks English & is one of the heads of the forestry department, has been detailed to accompany me to Arisan & will probably go elsewhere with me also. He is a very nice fellow & I fancy will make a genial companion.… It is now eleven years since I begged some scraps of Taiwania [a monotypic member of the cypress family (Cupressaceae)] from Hayata & got promises, which were never fulfilled, of more material of Formosan conifers. I intend now to make up for lost time & our Herbarium shall possess its compliment of Formosan conifers ere I am through.

February 16, 1918 | Taipeh, Formosa

I am back from the trip to Arisan & have but one regret which is that you too were not present to enjoy the forests & the giant trees. I had expected much but what I saw far exceeded my expectations: the forests are easily the finest & the trees the largest I have ever seen.… The country is very steep & savage & travelling over it is hard work. Thanks to a light railway & courtesies extended by the government things were made as easy for me as they possibly could be made. The weather on the whole was good though two consecutive days of rain & sleet & many foggy afternoons were a hinderance. I collected over twelve hundred specimens, representing about two hundred species, & took six and one-half-dozen photographs … The Chamaecyparis formosensis [an endemic false cypress] is the largest tree being sometimes nearly 200 ft. tall & 65 ft. in girth of trunk.… I was informed that the oldest tree which had been felled showed about two thousand seven hundred annual rings, & a larger one standing is estimated at three thousand years. The trunks are mostly hollow but the wood, which is reddish, fragrant, & has a beautiful satiny luster, is much esteemed by Japanese for interior work in houses.

February 28, 1918 | Taipeh, Formosa

I returned from the trip to the south on the night of February 26th. The flora of the coastal region did not prove at all interesting, indeed, most of it had been destroyed to make way for sugar, rice, & other crops. However, I made a fair collection of plants & took a dozen photographs so we shall have a record of what the flora is like.

March 16, 1918 | Taipeh, Formosa

The trip to the central range of Formosa has proved a complete success. The weather was fine throughout & the journey fairly easy. From the railway we travelled for two days on push trolley & then climbed for three days, sleeping in police huts at night.… The peak we ascended is named Mt. Kiraishu, is 11,002 ft. high, well-forested on the upper-middle slopes. The climate is drier & the flora different from that of the Arisan region. Abies kawakamii [an endemic fir] was the particular quest of the trip & we found it in great plenty above 9,500 ft. After collecting from the ground scales & spikes of disintegrated cones, I was fortunate enough to find four or five perfect cones & so complete the specimens. With this acquisition our herbarium possesses ample & complete material of every known species of Abies found in the Far East.… Altogether the trip yielded about two hundred species bringing the total to date collected in Formosa to about four hundred & seventy species. It was difficult country to photograph in but I secured two & one half dozen, which will give a fair idea of the vegetation.

April 11, 1918 | Taipeh, Formosa

I am writing this at the completion of the allotted task in Formosa. One objective I had in mind on visiting the island was to see if possible every conifer known to grow there. Dr. Hayata in Tokyo assured me this was impossible but the local authorities took a more favorable view & thanks to their good services complete success has crowned our efforts. I have seen, photographed, & collected ample material of every species & variety of conifer known from Formosa. But it must be confessed that some of these Formosan conifers have exacted severe toll in time, money & energy & at the moment of writing I am leg weary & tired.… When last I wrote I mentioned that my next trip had for its principal object Cunninghamia konishii [another member of the cypress family]. Bad weather hampered things but I got him & photographs also. I then switched off to another district & got the Libocedrus [an endemic incense cedar, now recognized as Calocedrus formosana] which now is found only on steep ridges & cliffs almost inaccessible. So difficult is the country that it was not possible to obtain photographs of the whole tree but only sections.…

Black-and-white photograph of mountains with trees in foreground
Wilson photographed pure stands of Taiwan fir (Abies kawakamii) on Mount Kiraishu, Nantou County, on March 6, 1918. Arnold Arboretum Archives

I was back here on April 4th & left the next morning to collect the last remaining species—the Formosan Pseudotsuga [an endemic Douglas fir, now recognized as P. sinensis var. wilsoniana].… On the morning of the fourth day we found our tree but all our efforts to find more failed. Dense fog came on & photography was out of question. The tree was a large one, fully 90 ft. tall & 12 ft. in girth of trunk which divided into three stems.… We then descended some five miles to our lodgings—a police hut—hoping that the next morning would be clear so that we might return & photograph the tree. It rained during the night but morning broke gloriously fine & we got back to the tree by 9 a.m. It stood badly for photography & we were nearly three hours cutting (or rather hacking for our tools were poor) away surrounding trees before a satisfactory picture could be taken. However, fortune favored us but scarcely had we finished when down came the mists blotting out everything. The task accomplished we packed up & returned by the way we came.

April 14, 1918 | Taipeh, Formosa

Formosa is a land wherein it is quite impossible to travel off the beaten track without official sanction & assistance. To us everything has been open & every wish, expressed or implied, viewed favorably. The director of the forestry experimental station, Mr. R. Kanehira, is a very exceptional man full of energy, enthusiasm & good will, & associated with him are at least two very competent collectors. Kanehira arranged all our trips & accompanied us on most of them. We got to know (he speaks English perfectly) one another pretty well & I hope to our mutual advantage. In fact, whilst the tangible results of our trip are considerable no less important in my opinion is the relationship I have established between the Arnold Arboretum & Kanehira & his associates.… Formosa is certainly a rich & beautiful island & its forest wealth is very great. To have visited the island is a privilege I greatly appreciate & I shall carry away with me none but the pleasantest of recollections.

Citation: Wilson, E. H. 2019. Taiwan dispatches. Arnoldia, 76(3): 28–33.

With cordial regards & best wishes,

I am, dear Professor Sargent,

Faithfully & sincerely yours,

E. H. Wilson