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Ernest Henry Wilson papers


The Ernest Henry Wilson papers reflect his contribution to horticulture and botany as a plant collector who, through numerous expeditions to China, Korea, and Japan, introduced many new species into cultivation in arboreta, parks, and private gardens. The collection includes his extensive correspondence written between 1899 and 1930 to Arnold Arboretum staff, mainly Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927), the Arboretum's first director; copies of his letters to other Arboretum explorers and colleagues such as Joseph Charles Francis Rock (1884-1962), David Fairchild (1869-1954), Frank Nicholas Meyer (1875-1918) Alfred Rehder (1863-1949), and members of the Veitch Nurseries in England. Other material includes field and plant collection notes, diaries, account books, shipping lists, maps, and manuscripts of both published and unpublished works. There are Chinese and other travel documents, letters of recommendation, certificates and material relating to Wilson's life as a student and his early work as a gardener. There is an extensive collection of clippings from newspapers and copies of articles from botanical and horticultural journals. Material relating to the administration of Arnold Arboretum and his other activities at Harvard University are included, as well. Of special note is Wilson's photograph collection of approximately 7,700 images taken at the Arnold Arboretum, throughout New England, in Eastern Asia, and around the world.


  • 1896-2017

General Physical Description note

20 linear feet, 30 boxes

Terms of Access

This collection is open for research. Researchers seeking to examine archival materials are strongly encouraged to make an appointment. The Director, or an office of origin, may place restrictions on the use of some or all of its records. The extent and length of the restriction will be determined by the Director, office of origin, and the Archivist and will be enforced equally for all researchers.

Terms of Use

The copyright is held by The President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Arnold Arboretum Archives of Harvard University. The copyright on some materials in the collection may be held by the original author or the author's heirs or assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining written permission from the holder(s) of copyright and the Arnold Arboretum Archives prior to publishing any quotations or images from materials in this collection.

Photocopies may be made at the discretion of the Arnold Arboretum Archives staff. Permission to make photocopies does not constitute permission to reproduce or publish materials outside the bounds of the fair use guidelines.


20 linear feet
Although there are a small number of personal family photographs in the collection, no family papers or family correspondence appear to exist. The first trip to China for Messrs. Veitch is the least documented expedition in the collection. No diary from this trip has been found, although evidence indicates that a diary was kept. No letters from Wilson to the Veitch firm have been located from the expeditions for Messrs. Veitch. However, the Veitch's letters to Wilson, as well as their instructions to him for both trips, are included. His papers also include some early work and education records, diaries, field and plant notes, account books, shipping lists, maps, Chinese and other travel documents, manuscripts, clippings, and several hundred letters to and from Wilson. Also included in his archives is an extensive and virtually complete collection of Wilson's photographs, lantern slides, and glass plate negatives. Some references to photography can be found in the notebooks, but no separate photography notebook exists. Also in the collection are contemporary articles and books about Wilson, records pertaining to exhibits of Wilson material, and correspondence relating to the Arboretum's archival holdings. Appendix 1 holds two earlier drafts of the finding aid for the Ernest Henry Wilson Papers, from 1984 and 1997. The 1984 document is the first finding aid created by the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

Biographical Note

"Ernest Henry Wilson wished to go down in memory as 'Chinese Wilson,' and so it has been. His reputation today is certainly that of one of the most successful individuals to introduce horticulturally valuable plants from China to western gardens. Over 1,000 different plants were gathered by Wilson and introduced in England and America as seeds, bulbs, cuttings, or plants; these have since become established in the horticultural trade and in private or botanical gardens." --Introduction to "E.H. Wilson as a Botanist," by Richard A. Howard, Director, Arnold Arboretum Arnoldia, 40; 3, 4, 1980.

E. H. Wilson was born at Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, England, on February 15, 1876, the eldest of Henry and Annie (Curtis) Wilson's seven children. On leaving school, Wilson apprenticed at the nurseries of Messrs. Hewitt of Solihull, Warwickshire. In 1892, at sixteen, he was employed at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens as a gardener and, on his own time in the evening, studied botany at the Birmingham Technical School. His next employment, which began in January 1897, was at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. In October of the following year, Wilson began studies at the Royal College of Science in South Kensington.

When the nursery firm of Veitch and Sons asked William Turner Thiselton-Dyer (1843-1928), the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (1885-1891), to recommend a suitable man to be sent to China to collect seeds and plants, it was the young E.H. Wilson he nominated. After six months of training under George Harrow at Veitch's Coombe Wood Nursery, Wilson left for China in 1899 and began a successful career in introducing Asiatic plants to the West. On his way to China, he visited at the Arnold Arboretum for five days, and initiated a life-long collaboration with the institution. In April 1902, Wilson returned to England and on June 8, 1902 married Ellen Ganderton of Edgbaston, Warwickshire. They had one daughter, Muriel Primrose, who would later marry the American botanist, George Slate, a plant breeder at the Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. Wilson went on a second trip to China for Veitch that lasted from 1903 to 1906. For the remainder of 1906, he worked as an assistant at the Imperial Institute, London.

His third and fourth China expeditions (1906-1911) were arranged by C.S. Sargent under the sponsorship of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. "A good set of photographs are really about as important as anything you can bring back with you," Sargent wrote as he prepared for his first Arboretum-sponsored expedition. Sargent insisted Wilson take on this journey and on all that would follow, a large format Sanderson whole-plate field camera capable of recording both great detail and broad perspectives without distortion. For three years, beginning in late 1906, Wilson explored western Hupeh and western Szechuan. He arrived in Boston in 1909 via Beijing, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, and finally London, where he spent several months developing the glass-plate negatives and seeing his 720 images for the first time. Also in 1909, the family moved to Boston; Ernest and Ellen Wilson would eventually live in a house constructed for them on the grounds of the Arboretum, where they would make their home for the rest of their lives.

The purpose of his second Arboretum expedition, which began in 1910, was to collect cones and conifer seeds in the central and southwestern parts of China. In September of that year, while traveling between Sungpan and Chentu, a landslide hit the expedition group, crushing Wilson's leg. After several months in a hospital at Chentu, Wilson returned to Boston in March 1911, much earlier than planned. Before the accident, however, he had managed to take 374 images and to collect and ship bulbs of Lilium regale, the Easter Lily, to Boston.

In January 1914, accompanied by his wife and daughter, Wilson sailed for Japan, where he would focus his attention on cultivated plants, horticulture, conifers, Kurume azaleas, and Japanese cherries. By the time the Wilsons returned to Boston at the beginning of 1915, there were 619 new images to add to the photograph collection. Wilson next undertook a "systematic exploration" of the region in 1917 and travelled to the Bonin Islands, Japan, Formosa, and along the Yalu River into the far northern reaches of Korea, returning to Boston in 1919 with seeds, living plants, 30,000 herbarium specimens, and 700 photographs. His last expedition, a tour of the gardens of the world, took place from 1920 to 1922 and included, in alphabetical order: Australia, England, France, India, Kenya, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, South Africa, and Tasmania.

In addition to being a plant explorer and a botanist, Wilson became a prolific author and a much sought-after lecturer. His articles appeared in the popular press as well as in the botanical literature, and he often illustrated his talks with hand-colored lantern slides adapted from the glass plate negatives created during his travels. In 1919, Wilson was appointed Assistant Director; after Sargent's death in 1927, Wilson became "Keeper" of the Arnold Arboretum. Three years later, his remarkable career was cut short when he and his wife were killed in an automobile accident on October 15, 1930 outside Worcester, Massachusetts. Ernest and Ellen Wilson are buried in the Mont-Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Canada.

Other Finding Aids note

Detailed finding aid available. Contact Archivist.


The major part of the E.H. Wilson collection has been at the Arnold Arboretum since Wilson's employment (1906-1930). The Veitch letters and many of the manuscripts were provided by his daughter, the late Muriel Primrose Wilson Slate (1906-1976), and her husband, Dr. George Slate (1899-1976) in 1952. Newspaper clipping and letters written by Wilson to his friend and nurseryman, Harlan Page Kelsey (1889–19?) were presented to the Arnold Arboretum by his son, Seth Kelsey, in 1970. In 1981, Wilson's granddaughter, Mrs. John R. Abbott (Barbara Slate Abbott), gave additional documents and mementos to the archives. At that time some of the material contributed by Mrs. Abbott was transferred by Peter Shaw Ashton, the Arboretum's director, to the advocates of the creation of a museum dedicated to Wilson in Chipping Campden, England, and the present site of the E. H. Wilson Memorial Garden. Scheduled to open in 1984, the museum never materialized. In September 1996, the transferred papers and books were returned to the Arnold Arboretum from the Library of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew where they had been on deposit. Wilson's letters to C.S. Sargent and the letters from Messrs. James Veitch and Sons, nurserymen, were included in the Wilson papers in 1984. In 1996, C.S. Sargent's letters to Wilson were removed from the Arboretum's Pre-1927 correspondence file and placed in the archives. Several of Wilson's notebooks which were originally catalogued and shelved in the library were moved to the archives in 1980. Parts of the Wilson papers were microfilmed in 1980: Harvard University Photographic Department. Microfilm: 80-3626. Master C804, Reel 3, 4.

Related Archival Materials note

Missing Title
  1. Chvany, Peter J. "E. H. Wilson, Photographer."Arnoldia, 36:5 (1976). (
  2. Clausen, Kristen; Hu, Shiu-ying. "Mapping the Collecting Localities of E. H. Wilson in China."Arnoldia, 40:3 (1980). (
  3. Ferguson, A.R. "E. H. Wilson, Yichang, and the Kiwifruit."Arnoldia, 43:4 (1983). (
  4. Gardner, William. "E. H. Wilson's First Trip to China."Arnoldia, 32:3 (1972). (
  5. Howard, Richard A. "E. H. Wilson as a Botanist (Part I)."Arnoldia, 40:3 (1980). (
  6. Howard, Richard A. "E. H. Wilson as a Botanist (Part II)."Arnoldia, 40:4 (1980). (
For an online exhibit of the Wilson Collection, please visit the Open Collections Program webpage at

Processing Information

Carin Dohlman, July 1984; revised April 2009, Sheila Connor; revised October 2009, Meghan Hardison; revised June 2011, Kayleigh Hinckley; revised April 2012, Liz Francis.
Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) papers, 1896-2017: Guide.
Finding aid prepared by Larissa Glasser and Liz Francis
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Arnold Arboretum Archives Repository

The Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library is a specialized collection devoted to the study of temperate woody plants. We collect works on botany, horticulture, floras, urban forestry and taxonomy. The library contains more than 25,000 volumes and 40,000 photographs, and includes an archive that both documents the Arboretum's history and is a repository for 19th, 20th, and 21st century horticultural and botanical collections.

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