With Chinese 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 world
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 yet ripe.
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 beside Sorbus sargentiana and Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' who also worked for Sargent in China, and they make a historic trio.
Among Wilson’s 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 betulifolium, V. cinnamomifolium, V. henryi, V. lobophyllum and V. wilsonii.
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 here.
Come to Barnsley to see them, and do read books about the plant hunters.