Online Archived Exhibition: MAGNIFICENT TREES OF ASIA

January-March 2018

In my next life, I will ask not to return as a man

But to be a pine tree rustling alone against the sky.

—Nguyen Cong Tru

The Asia-related centers at Harvard periodically spotlight some of the vast Asian resources at the University. Featured in this exhibit are a selection of photographs of trees in Asia by Ernest Henry Wilson from Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library.

Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) was the furthest traveled of all the Arnold Arboretum’s plant explorers of the early twentieth century. From 1899 to 1930, he visited dozens of countries, collected thousands of plant specimens (cuttings and seeds), and took thousands of incredible photographs documenting trees and forests, landscapes, and ethnography which testify to his legacy.

Wilson was born in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, England, on February 15, 1876, the eldest of seven children. He apprenticed at the nurseries of Messrs. Hewitt of Solihull, Warwickshire, and in 1892 gained employment at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens as a gardener. He studied botany at the Birmingham Technical School in the evenings and joined the staff at the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew in 1897.

Even at a young age, Wilson showed immense promise. After training at Veitch’s Coombe Wood Nursery in London, he traveled abroad in 1899 to begin a successful career collecting Asian plants, returning to England in 1902. His second trip to China for Veitch lasted from 1903 to 1906. Wilson’s third and fourth visits to China were sponsored by Charles S. Sargent, the director of the Arnold Arboretum. For three years beginning in 1907, Wilson traveled in China’s western Hubei and western Sichuan provinces, before returning to Boston in 1909. Wilson’s second Arboretum trip, which began in 1910, was to collect cones and conifer seeds in central and southwestern China.

In 1914, Wilson traveled in Japan, focusing his attention on conifers, azaleas, and Japanese cherries. Beginning in 1917, he undertook a systematic survey of Korea, Japan, and Formosa (Taiwan), returning to Boston in 1919 with seeds, living plants, 30,000 herbarium specimens, and 700 photographs. His last trip, a tour of the gardens of the world, took place from 1920 to 1922.

Wilson was a popular lecturer on the topics of his travels and horticulture. After Sargent’s death in 1927, he became “Keeper” of the Arnold Arboretum. Three years later, his career was cut short when he and his wife were tragically killed in an automobile accident.

Ernest Henry Wilson’s photographs and biography can be found on the Arnold Arboretum’s website ( along with those of other explorers to Asia and information on the Arboretum’s Asia Programs.

Sponsored by the Harvard University Asia Center, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, the Harvard China Fund, the Korea Institute, and the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. Special thanks to the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library.

Harvard University's Asia-Related Resources