Evergreen Clematis armandii spends much of its year unseen in the vast Osmanthus armatus hedge through which it grows between our hillside garden and orchard. But in the first days of spring it blooms spectacularly, clothing its host with ivory and generously scenting the air all about it.

The paired plants share a rare heritage: brought from western China into cultivation in Western Hemisphere gardens by English-born botanist and plant hunter Ernest Henry Wilson. Appointed to Kew aged 20, Wilson was still young when engaged by British nursery James Veitch and Sons to collect plants in China. In 1902 he collected O. armatus, in 1903 the wonderful Lilium regale, and in 1907 – this time collecting for Harvard University’s Arnold Aboretum – C. armandii in Hubei. These were a handful among hundreds of exceptional plants.

C. armandii first came to the attention of western science when collected as a herbarium sample by French priest, botanist and polymath Armand David in 1869. But it was not until Wilson’s 1907 expedition that live specimens were successfully shipped and grown on in Europe and America.

‘Few botanical explorers have surpassed the genius of Ernest Henry Wilson,’ the journal Nature recorded in 1943. Arnold Aboretum director Charles Sprague Sargent, whom Wilson later joined as associate director, collaborated with the explorer from 1913 to author the Plantae Wilsonianae – a breathtaking inventory titled ‘An enumeration of the woody plants collected in western China for the Arnold Aboretum of Harvard University in 1907, 1908 and 1910’ by Wilson.

C. armandii, growing four-x-five metres to crown the Osmanthus, with Photinia beauverdiana var. notabilis, L. regale that flower beneath it, and Rosa longicuspis var. sinowilsonii are, in our garden, testament to Wilson’s brilliance.