There’s a little gate off the main street in Chipping Camden. You might not even notice it, but step inside, and you’re … not in Wonderland, but almost in China!
It’s hard to imagine how different this stone and brick must have been to the paradises – and horrors – he found himself in during his time as a plant hunter around the world, but so famously in China that he became known as Chinese Wilson.
The garden is a cabinet of curiosities of some of the plants he brought back, some so common now that it feels odd to imagine how exciting it would have been to have seen them flower for the first time. Ernest Wilson is certainly one of the great collectors, he’s thought to have been responsible for introducing about 2000 Asian plant species to Britain.
And of course the names give a clue…
My personal passion for garden history follows my heart more than my mind. Back when I used to hang around my mother’s garden library, it was always the books about plant collectors I’d choose. (And Ernest Wilson was one of my favourites. Perhaps I knew I’d have a much loved Chinese sister-in-law and nephew one day?)
And indeed, this garden is rather like a book you can read, although instead of illustrations we have samples of the plants he brought back, 60 of which were named after him.
His adventures weren’t without trouble. In 1910, his leg was crushed during an avalanche of boulders. Apparently he set it himself with the tripod of his camera, but walked afterwards with what he called his ‘lily limp’. However, he was responsible for introducing the regal lily to the west.
He ended his life in the US, where he was keeper of the Arnold Arboretum, and died with his wife in a car accident in 1930.
In the garden there’s a tree planted by his granddaughter. This poem came from one of the information boards, which says that in later trips to Japan when staying with headhunters, ‘it is a good idea to sleep with one eye open.’
Sleeping with one eye open
So as not to miss a moment
of the world’s beauty –
bark peeling like sunbaked skin,
petals as fresh as parchment,
the uptwist of a lily,
and a lion’s tongue of an iris,
and at night to dream of birdsong
like the skylark from home,
daisies in the churchyard,
a glimmer of silver on the river,
the honey-stoned Silk Street,
before waking to a fresh morning
on the silk route, searching
every day for one more miracle.