Treasures From China
New Year soon upon us, Rosemary Verey takes the opportunity
to select a few of her favourites among the many plants
that were originally discovered in that part of the
Now is an appropriate
moment to think about the plants and seeds that E. H.
Wilson collected in China and have become established
in Europe and the USA. Why this moment? It was 100 years
ago that it became possible for botanists to explore
this country never before accessible to such travellers.
E. H. Wilson, born
in Chipping Camden in 1876, studied botany at Birmingham,
then at Kew. Veitch,
the great tree and shrub nursery, enquired at Kew for
a likely plant collector. They met the young Wilson
and invited him to go to China as their representative
to acquire seeds of the handkerchief tree, Davidia
involucrata. Augustine Henry had seen and recorded
this tree previously – when the seeds were not
After six months
working for Veitch, Wilson set off from England travelling
via Boston to learn the best collecting techniques from
Charles Sprague Sargent, director of the Arnold
Arboretum. His friendship with Sargent influenced
the rest of his life.
Arriving in China
he travelled immediately to Szemae to meet Augustine
Henry who gave him vital advice on Chinese conditions,
the best collecting localities and where he would find
the Davidia involucrata.
He found the exact
spot only to discover that the tree had been recently
cut down to give space for a house. This was in 1900,
but fortunately he discovered a grove of them nearby
with ripe seeds ready for collection. All the handkerchief
trees in Europe and USA are descended from Wilson’s
1900 consignment. During the ten years he was collecting
in China he never again saw a ripe Davidia seed.
By 1901 he was in
Hupeh Province, where the mountains, rich in plants,
made very bad going. To me, his most exciting discovery
was the paperbark maple, Acer
griseum with its flaking cinnamon-coloured bark,
which tempts you to peels this off. The specimen in
the Arnold Arboretum sent to Sargent by Wilson is a
mature tree and has descendents. Ours at Barnsley grows
sargentiana and Sorbus
'Joseph Rock' who also worked for Sargent in China,
and they make a historic trio.
consignment of 35 cases of bulbs and roots, 305 seed
species and 900 herbarium specimens were shrubs we value
for our gardens. They include the Chinese hazel, Corylus
chinensis, Corylopsis veitchiana and C. wilsonii. For
early spring he sent us Daphne
tangutica and for summer Viburnum
cinnamomifolium, V. henryi, V. lobophyllum and V.
Two syringas are
his introductions, S. julianae and S.
meyeri. I like to grow the latter as a standard.
Amongst the treasures
he sent home between 1900 and 1910 were Itea ilicifolia,
the evergreen holly-like shrub with very scented creamy
coloured flowers in mid-summer. This shrub always gives
me a special pleasure. Philadelphus purpurascens has
spreading branches, and is ideal for the shrubbery.
I associate paeonies
with China, and Wilson found P.
delavayi in west China in 1908. We have grown this
for years ever since I was given the black seeds. I
always marvel at its scented flowers, followed by its
enticing black seeds. It is one of the important plants
Come to Barnsley
to see them, and do read books about the plant hunters.
Want to find out more? Take a look at these books
reprinted with premission from Greenfingers.com