The tale of Davidia involucrata

Musing on my favourite plant explorer – E.H. Wilson

The name of botanical explorer Ernest Henry Wilson is attached to the introduction of many plants growing in our gardens today, including a dear one to me: Deinanthe caerulea. There are so many interesting books to read on the subject of plant explorers and certainly one would have to pick some favourites. What I really like is that many of the plants they discovered bear their name in recognition, in the specific epithet. When being associated with a real person they suddenly become familiar, which makes remembering their botanical name a piece of cake. Specific epithets like: menziesii, wilsonii, hookeri, fortunei, farreri, douglasii, van houttei and so on, are bringing back the memories of great plant exlporers like: A. Menzies, E.H.Wilson, J.D.Hooker, Robert Fortune, C.P. Thunberg, Reginald Farreri, David Douglas, L. van Houtte and all the others. Considered by some as ‘crazy’ people, they often risked their lives collecting plants in far away countries, many times for very little financial reward. E.H. Wilson first started collecting plants on behalf of Veitch & Son Nursery in 1899 and then he worked as a collector for Arnold Arboretum. From his many expeditions in China, Japan, Korea and so on, he collected a wide variety of plants. The list of his plant introductions runs into the thousands!

I enjoyed mostly the story of his first mission in China, which was very specific: to find and collect seeds of Davidia involucrata, the Dove Tree, known only from a herbarium collection sent back to France by French missionary Father Armand David.

Davidia involucrata

Davidia involucrata

To make a long story short, he found a new grove of Davidia trees and collected lots of seeds, along with many other plant species, but still the credit for introducing this tree went to Father Paul Guillame Farges, because from a package with seeds he had sent to a friend (supposedly exactly 37 of them!), one germinated exactly in the same year Wilson started his trip! The tree was named in honor of the first collector Father A. David. The main feature of this medium size tree, that sparkled the frenzy of collecting it, are the flower bracts. Like other members of Fam. Cornaceae (some say Nyssaceae), the flowers are small but with a pair of large, up to 25 cm, pure white bracts which look like petals. When it flowers in May-June, the branches are loaded with the white bracts that are fluttering with each breeze looking like white doves or handkerchiefs. Wilson himself compared them with “huge butterflies hovering amongst the trees”. Botanically speaking is worth noting that although nearly all flowers in the head are staminate only a single bisexual flower develops into a fruit upon fertilization (fruit is a hard nut with a long peduncle).

 Another of Wilson’s introduction – Acer griseum, the Paperbark Maple, wasn’t ignored that bad by the horticultural tradesmen but still is not enough utilized considering his qualities. And I cannot stop and have to mention another rare, exquisite small tree that we owe to Wilson: Heptacodium miconioides – The Seven Sons tree.

The centenary of E.H. Wilson birth was marked and celebrated in his town of origin – Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, England with the creation of a garden including about 1200 of the species he collected and introduced in cultivation (mainly of Chinese and Japanese origin) – Ernest Wilson Memorial Garden.