Ernest Wilson – keeping one eye open

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 a memorial garden to the plant hunter, Ernest Wilson who was born in the town in 1876. Here’s his house, just further up the street…


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.

Creative Writing for Garden Lovers

Visiting gardens for creative inspiration has been one of my greatest pleasures over the last few years, as witnessed by this website! And so I’m really pleased to see this fantastic initiative launched by the You Grow Girl community.


The first prompt by Gayla Trail is to write about your first plant – Michelle Chapman has written about hers here.

And here are two from me…


My favourite thing of all is to shut the doors of our greenhouse and breathe in the peppery smell of geraniums. I tell my sister I want to marry a geranium, but later when she tells my brothers and they laugh at me, I say she’s got it wrong. I want to carry a geranium. ‘Where?’ they ask, and I answer, truthfully, everywhere.


I can ride my bike round and round the garden without stopping now. Sometimes I will put my hand out and pick a leaf in passing. Often I’ll put it up to my nose without thinking. One day when I do this, I have to apply brakes because of something exciting. I sniff and sniff, and then some more. A ball of happiness bursts in my stomach until I have to go back to find which plant this leaf comes from. I want to dive into it headfirst, but I pick several leaves instead and put them safely in my basket. Every few yards I’ll stop to put my nose inside the basket. When I ask my mother later, she’ll say this is called mint and that it’s a pest. I learn what it’s like to love something in secret.