Ernest Henry Wilson and the Trees of New England

Explore a photographic inventory of New England's trees captured by an Arnold Arboretum plant collector.

By The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Trees are the Aristocrats of the Vegetable Kingdom, the noblest expression of vegetable life. Take them from the landscape and its whole appearance changes completely – luxuriance gives place to barrenness…The arresting characters of trees, their height, spread of crown, bulk of trunk and ruggedness of bark, are unique features without which this world would be largely bereft of its scenic grandeur. No, trees are virtuous citizens of the earth, rich in permanent qualities – indispensables.

- Ernest Wilson, Aristocrats of the Trees

Ernest Henry Wilson (1920) by Charles DarlingThe Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

In 1922, Arnold Arboretum plant collector Ernest Wilson returned to Boston after a two-year tour to the world’s most prominent botanic gardens and arboreta. A year later, he purchased an automobile and took to the road to photograph prominent trees throughout New England

Quercus alba Massachusetts (South Natick) (1923-12-26) by Ernest Henry WilsonThe Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University




Wilson, his wife Ellen, daughter Muriel Primrose, and family friend Beatrice “Aunt Betty” Mumford struck out for locations around Boston, central and western Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island in search of special trees.

Ulmus americana Massachusetts (Framingham) (1924-01-09) by Ernest Henry WilsonThe Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

A voluminous writer, Wilson produced dozens of books and articles on trees, horticulture, gardening, the Arboretum, and his explorations, for both professional and popular audiences. He was a sought after lecturer who even spoke live on the new medium of radio.

Quercus alba Massachusetts (Dedham) (1923-12-08) by Ernest Henry WilsonThe Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

We do not actually know why Wilson began photographing these magnificent trees in 1923; perhaps he had a book in mind, and indeed, he did use some of these images in his last major publication, Aristocrats of the Trees.

Ulmus americana Massachusetts (Framingham) (1924-01-09) by Ernest Henry WilsonThe Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

He may have envisioned a larger project, or sought to document the noble elms before Dutch Elm Disease took it’s toll, but he might simply have wanted to document the notable specimens he encountered, as rural New England began to modernize.

Ulmus americana New Hampshire (Portsmouth) (1926-10-31) by Ernest Henry WilsonThe Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Whatever the reason, Wilson ventured forth with his companions armed with his sturdy Sanderson glass plate camera, the same one he carried on his expeditions across the mountains of China, Taiwan, and what is today North Korea.

Ulmus americana Connecticut (Withersfield) (1924-05-04) by Ernest Henry WilsonThe Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

For his New England tree portraits, Wilson had the luxury of proximity, and ample time and resources.

Contrast the ease of a family drive in a comfortable touring car for a day of relaxed photography, with his challenges in Asia.

Quercus borealis maxima (Beaman Oak) Massachusetts (North Lancaster) (1925-01-10) by Ernest Henry WilsonThe Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Over a four-year period, Wilson captured about ninety photographs of stately American elms, Ulmus americana, more than fifty images of various species of oak...

...as well as portraits of many other aged witness trees of New England, such as the Beaman Oak of Lancaster, Massachusetts, pictured here.

Ulmus americana Massachusetts (Framingham) (1924-01-09) by Ernest Henry WilsonThe Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

He also recorded the cultural landscape that surrounded them, that could include colonial farm houses and town street scenes. His final output was over 500 photographs.

Ulmus americana Connecticut (Withersfield) (1924-05-04) by Ernest Henry WilsonThe Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

The Arnold Arboretum digitized these striking images of early twentieth century New England from their original glass plate negatives as part of the Digital Commonwealth program, a web portal and repository service for cultural heritage materials held by Massachusetts libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives.

Malus pumila Massachusetts (Marshfield Hills) (1924-06-01) by Ernest Henry WilsonThe Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Visit the Arboretum's Google Arts & Culture page to explore dozens of these photographs in exquisite detail. Follow Wilson on a journey to photograph the Rugg-Gates Elm in Framingham, Massachusetts, in Mr. Wilson and an American Elm.

Credits: Story

All images are the property of the President and Fellows of Harvard College and Botanical Gardens Conservation International. Written and curated by Lisa Pearson.

Learn more at www.arboretum.harvard.edu

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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