Ernest Henry Chinese Wilson
Photo: Ernest Henry Wilson Wikipedia

by John Bagnasco

Arguably the most intrepid plant hunter of the early twentieth century, the exploits of Ernest Henry ("Chinese") Wilson play more like the scenes from an Indiana Jones movie.

The reward for his efforts was the discovery and introduction of thousands of landscape plants into the world’s gardens.

Wilson was born on February 15, 1876 in Chipping Camden, a town located in the northeast part of Gloucestershire, a rural English county. He was the oldest of seven children and since his father died while Henry was young, he began work at an early age to help support the family. At sixteen, he had already developed an intense curiosity and love for plants and went to work for the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, while pursuing studies at the local technical school. His excellence in learning won him a position at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Shortly thereafter, at the age of twenty-one, he became a botany teacher at the Royal College of Science

The famous Victorian era, Veitch Nurseries, hired him to travel to China to find a source for the elusive and much-heralded dove tree, Davidia involucrata. In 1899, the man soon to be known as “Chinese” Wilson set out on his first collecting trip to China. During this three-year hunt, he was not only able to locate the dove tree in the mountains of northwestern China, but he collected over 400 additional plants.

Wilson introduced many popular landscape plants including: butterfly bush, paperbark maple, Chinese dogwood, cotoneasters, evergreen clematis, Korean boxwood, Kurume azaleas, primrose jasmine, shore juniper, Japanese anemones, and many rhododendrons. None of his introductions was more warmly received by Americans than the stately Regal Lily, Lilium regale. It nearly cost him his life and it is this plant for which Wilson wanted to be remembered. However, there are now 60 species and varieties of plants that bear his name.

Tragedy cut short the brilliant career of this plantsman. On October 15, 1930, his car skidded on a slippery road and dropped 40 feet over an embankment. Both Wilson and his wife were killed. It is perhaps ironic that the man who survived the perils of foreign lands was to end his life in a misfortunate accident near his home.