I’ll Have the General Tso’s Chicken
Dove Tree flowers and foliage; photo by Myrabella.
January 28 is the Chinese New Year, which this time is the Year of the Rooster. The Chinese celebrations include an acknowledgement of America’s current influence on their culture, and in reply the Supreme Leader no doubt will wish “Good Luck” to all our Chinese friends, perhaps with a tweet or a cluck. Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, we look back on Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson (1876-1930) and his accomplishments in bringing hundreds of Chinese plant varieties to Westerners in the early years of the Twentieth Century.
“Chinese” Wilson was English by birth, and he started out on his plant collecting in China on behalf of the English firm of James Veitch & Sons, who primarily sent him to retrieve the Dove Tree, Davidia involucrata. Wilson made numerous trips to China, Japan, and other Eastern, African, and Latin American locales over the first twenty years of the Twentieth Century, eventually collecting plants on behalf of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. In 1930, he and his wife died in an automobile accident in Worcester, outside of Boston.
Ernest Henry Wilson
Regal Lily; photo by Pimpinellus.
Wilson sent back to the West a staggering number of plant species, many of which, like Camellia, Magnolia, Azalea, and Crepe Myrtle, while not entirely unknown here before his collection efforts, have become so common since he gathered their multiple varieties that Westerners could be forgiven for thinking they have always been here. Wilson himself was most proud of his discovery in 1907 of the Regal Lily, Lilium regale, on an expedition to the Min River valley in western Sichuan Province, where he paid the high cost of having his right leg broken in two places in a rock slide. He made it out of the wilds safely in three days and recovered, but ever after he walked with a limp.
This New Year of the Rooster it does us good to remember a good man, “Chinese” Wilson, and his positive contributions to the Western world borne of his expeditions to China and the Far East. It’s better still to think of how the Chinese reservoir of plant diversity has enriched our own gardens. And it’s best of all to realize in these difficult times that the influence of Wilson’s good work will over the long run outweigh the tribulations visited upon us by one petulant, puffed-up rooster of a man. The General Tso’s Chicken is good; let’s enjoy that and leave aside for now it’s American variant, Orange Chicken.