by Jim Atwater
In a recent issue of this bulletin there was an article relating the search at the end of the nineteenth century for the legendary dove tree by the young plant explorer Ernest Henry Wilson. While being coached by his sponsors, the Veitch Nursery of London, England prior to his departure for China, he was cautioned to not become distracted “as probably almost every worthwhile plant in China has now been introduced into Europe.”
Wilson spent three years in China locating the elusive dove tree and sending numerous seeds back to England. The story is now well known of his bitter disappointment when returning to England in 1902 to learn that Maurice De Vilmorin, the great French plantsman at Les Barres south of Paris, had received in 1897 from Father Paul Farges two seeds, one of which had germinated. Wilson would say later in life that although he wasn’t the first to find the Davidia, he was responsible for all the original plants with one exception!
Wilson made six more trips to the Far East over the next sixteen years introducing to the western world over 1500 hitherto unknown plants, earning the nickname “Chinese Wilson” and the reputation as the greatest plant explorer of the twentieth century. Although best known for his discovery of woody plants it was during his fourth expedition to Asia in June 1908 that he made what he considered to be the greatest find of his storied career. While exploring in the Min River area south of SungPaw in the province of Szechwan he came upon a remote and wild valley populated with thousands of lilies unlike any seen before in the western world. It turned out he had stumbled upon the only place in the world that was home to the glorious regal lily (Lilium regale).
I’m told that Wilson never returned to the valley on subsequent trips and it is believed never to have been visited since by westerners. All of today’s regal lilies came originally from that one isolated river valley in western China.