Wilson was born in Chipping Campden, England in 1876, 33 years after Robert Fortunes first Chinese expedition. Wilson worked in Birmingham Botanical Gardens and studied at the local Technical School. His studies were rewarded when in 1897 he obtained a position at Kew.
In 1898 the Managing Director of the famous Victorian Veitch Nurseries asked the Director at Kew to recommend a young man to travel to China to find a source of The Handkerchief Tree--Davidia involucrata. Wilson was recommended. The choice was either a fortunate guess or a piece of inspired intuition and in 1899, the man who was later to be known as Chinese Wilson set out for China. The first trip lasted for three years. Wilson found not only the Davidia in the mountains of Northwestern China but 400 additional new plants.
In 1903 Wilson returned to China, once again sponsored by Veitch, this time Wilson's task was to find the yellow poppy Meconopsis integrifolia. Once again Wilson succeeded and he found his poppy. The poppy however was probably a low point in the expedition as he discovered many new rhododendron, roses, primula and more Meconopsis--Chinese Wilson was well established as a plant hunter. Such was Wilson's reputation that in 1906 his ties with Veitch were severed and he was recruited by the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts.
The Director of the Arboretum at that time, Professor Charles Sprague Sargent, used Wilson's talents all over the world in search of new species for the Arboretum--Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, Africa and, of course, China. It was during a search for trees for the Arboretum that Wilson discovered Lilium regale, the large white trumpet lily that now graces many gardens.
At one point Wilson was estimated to have introduced 2000 new species in a four month period and much of the original material collected by Wilson can be seen at the Arnold Arboretum. Europe was fortunate that at that time Professor Sargent sent Wilson's material that was considered too tender for the Boston climate to Scotland. Many of Wilson's choice rhododendrons and trees can be seen at Dawyck Arboretum near Peebles in the Scottish Borders.
Sargent died in 1927 and Wilson succeeded him as Director at Arnold. It was quite an achievement for Wilson to be appointed Director at the age of 50 and a long and distinguished career seemed to stretch in front of him at the Arboretum. Unfortunately, it was not to be and Wilson as his wife were tragically killed in a road accident in Massachusetts in 1930. But when you consider how many plants bear the name wilsonii you realise just what a legacy he left behind.- Duncan McDougall
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