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1927 Map of the Arboretum

1905 - 1918: Campaign in China and Central Asia

Frank Meyer photographed this table of bird cherries (Prunus padus) in August 1913 at Xiaowutai Shan, Hebei Province. He comments in the caption, "Large choke or birds' cherries collected at an elevation of over 8,000 feet. These fruits are edible and might be appreciated in the colder regions of the U.S. as a garden fruit." Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.
Frank Meyer photographed this table of bird cherries (Prunus padus) in August 1913 at Xiaowutai Shan, Hebei Province. He comments in the caption,

Plants collected on this Expedition

Plant ID Accession Date Recieved As Origin Source

Expedition Stats

China, Korea, Russia

Event Type
Campaign
Collection Type
Germplasm, Herbarium Specimens
Arnold Arboretum Participants
Frank Nicholas Meyer, Johannis J.C. de Leuw (assistant), Chow-hai Ting (interpreter)
Other Institution(s)
United States Department of Agriculture
Frank Meyer stands beside a large lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) at the Princess Tombs near Beijing. "Note how the Chinese have cut away pieces of bark and made incisions at obtain resin, which all helps to build a fire to cook a meal or some tea water."
Frank Meyer stands beside a lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) at the Princess Tombs near Beijing. He comments, “Note how the Chinese have cut away pieces of bark and made incisions to obtain resin, which all helps to build a fire to cook a meal.” Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

From 1905-1918, Frank Nicholas Meyer conducted a plant collecting campaign in China, northern Korea, Siberia, and central Asia for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

His mission was to collect plants with economic value for introduction to America agriculture. When Meyer sailed for China in 1905, he began a 13-year odyssey that led to the introduction of more than 2,000 species of plants.

Meyer’s supervisor, David Fairchild of the USDA’s Foreign Plant Introduction Section, made an arrangement with Arnold Arboretum director Charles Sprague Sargent to have Meyer collect ornamental woody plants for the Arboretum along with photographs of plants and landscapes.

The Explorer

Born in Amsterdam, Frank Meyer began his career at the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam where he worked his way up to the position of head gardener in charge of the experimental garden. His aptitude caught the attention of the director, botanist and geneticist Hugo de Vries, who became his mentor.

Meyer sailed to America in 1901 and obtained work with the USDA in their greenhouses in Washington, D.C. After a year with the USDA, he went to Mexico to collect plants. On his return in 1904, David Fairchild hired Meyer to make a collecting trip to China.

Frank Meyer's assistant Johannis de Leuw stands beside a large chestnut (Castanea mollissima) nea Suntunying, Hebei in 1913. The trunk shows wounds caused by chestnut bark disease.
Frank Meyer stands in front of an inn in Al-langer, Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu. He comments,
Frank Meyer's interpreter Chow-hai Ting (left) and an unknown man (right) stand beside a persimmon (Diospyros kaki) tree. Meyer comments,
A shoreline with velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) fiber drying and bleaching on the banks of the river in Tianjin, Tianjin Municipality.
A shoreline with velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) fiber drying and bleaching on the banks of the river in Tianjin, Tianjin Municipality. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

The Collecting Campaign

First Expedition, 1905-1907

Meyer’s first expedition took him to northern China, Korea and Siberia. During this initial expedition, Meyer concentrated on collecting seeds and scions of fruit trees and other edible plants such as the Chinese pistachio (Pistacia chinensis), wild peach trees (Prunus davidiana), and a dwarf lemon (Citrus x meyeri) that would become famous as the Meyer lemon. He also found some notable ornamentals such as a maple (Acer truncatum), a columnar juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Columnaris’), and the Amur lilac (Syringa amurensis).

While in Shanghai in February 1907, Meyer met the Arboretum’s plant explorer Ernest Henry Wilson. In spite of an initially awkward introduction, they became good friends. Meyer returned to the United States in the summer of 1908 and spent the next year visiting agricultural experiment stations and sorting the photographs from his expedition.

A scene from the Hongkew public market, Shanghai with baskets of bamboo shoots.
A Siberian elm growing beside the walls of Shenyang, Liaoning Province. Meyer notes the,
Frank Meyer photographed this pagoda perched on a rocky slope near Pang shan, Hebei Province.
Laborers pumping water into a rice field pause for a moment in June 1907 for Frank Meyer's camera.
Frank Meyer stands beside a namesake spruce (Picea meyeri) near Beijing in 1907.
A view through an archway on the road from Beijing to Wutai shan in April 1907.
A man holds a yellow flowering stem of Rosa xanthina in the mountains near Changchi, Shanxi.
A man stands beside a large lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) in Qufu, Shangdong in September 1907.
"The forbidding looking masses of the Tirek-Dawan or Poplar pass, which we had to cross enroute from Osh to Kashgar." Frank Meyer, October 1910.
“The forbidding looking masses of the Tirek-Dawan or Poplar pass, which we had to cross enroute from Osh to Kashgar.” Frank Meyer, October 1910. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

Second Expedition, 1909-1912

In the fall of 1909, Meyer returned to Asia by way of Europe. He visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and other botanical gardens on the continent. Meyer continued on to Crimea and then on to Azerbaidzhan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, and Xinjiang Province (Chinese Turkestan), all the while collecting specimens for the USDA and the Arboretum.

The beginning of 1911 found Meyer and his party exploring and collecting along the border of Mongolia and Siberia. Political unrest forced him westwards instead of continuing on into China.

He journeyed up the Volga, on to St. Petersburg and Europe. He returned to the United States in 1912 on the Mauretania, one day behind the ill-fated Titanic. After a brief sojourn in America, Meyer prepared to return to Asia.

Frank Meyer photographed this massive smooth leaved elm (Ulmus carpinifolia) in Shagran, Xinjiang.
A three women and a man stand before the dwelling in which Meyer stayed in Tchoa in the Tekes Valley, Xinjiang in 1911.
Frank Meyer's plant collecting team pose for his camera near Ure-dalik, Xinjiang. Standing in the front is his interpreter. Seated in the wagon is the guard, and standing in the rear is his horse handler.
Frank Meyer's interpreter stands beside a wild apple tree (Malus sp.) in the Chong Ojighilan valley, near Tian Shan, Xinjiang in March 1911.
A child stands beside the furrowed trunk of a jujube (Zizyphus jujuba) in Leling, Shandong Province.
A child stands beside the furrowed trunk of a jujube (Zizyphus jujuba) in Leling, Shandong Province. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

Third Expedition, 1913-1915

Meyer returned to China in 1913 with a request from the U.S. Office of Forest Pathology to ascertain whether the chestnut blight disease was of Asian origin. He was able to prove that it had indeed developed in China, but the disease had not decimated the Asian chestnuts species.

In December 1913, he and his party left Beijing for Shaanxi, then journeyed on to Shanxi and Henan Provinces, all the while collecting numerous specimens, scions and seeds. He had intended to explore Gansu, but the loss of his interpreter and the presence of bandits curtailed his activities. The expedition returned to Beijing. They soon set off again for the same area and then on to Gansu and Qinghai Province (Tibetan borderlands).

News of the outbreak of World War I upset Meyer badly. That, combined with difficulties he had been having with his interpreter and his porter, led to an incident in the remote town of Siku, in which Meyer either pushed or threw both men down a flight of stairs. The matter ended up before the local magistrate. It took the intervention of Reginald Farrar, who was also plant hunting in the area at the same time, to make sure Meyer was acquitted.

In November 1914, Meyer journeyed north to Lanzhou to collect more specimens and finally began the return trip to Beijing at the beginning of 1915. After packing his specimens and collecting additional materials at Fairchild’s request, the party traveled south to Hangzhou by way of Nanjing, and on to Shanghai and Japan and finally to America.

Preparation of watermelon (Citrullus vulgaris).
Frank Meyer photographed this Styphnolobium japonicum in Yung lo, Shanxi Province in 1914.
"Tall pines scattered thru wild mountains showing how most of the mountainous country of North China looked before ruinous and senseless deforestation was practiced by the population." Frank Meyer, Xinglong, Hebei, December 1916.
“Tall pines scattered thru wild mountains showing how most of the mountainous country of North China looked before ruinous and senseless deforestation was practiced by the population.” Frank Meyer, Xinglong, Hebei, December 1916.

Fourth Expedition, 1916-1918

Meyer’s last expedition began in 1916 when he returned to China via Japan, Beijing, and then on to Hebei (formerly Chili Province), Ichang and Jingmen in Hubei. In the early winter of 1916 he made collections of a number of varieties of Ussuri pears (Pyrus ussuriensis) which he photographed and described. Civil unrest forced him to spend the winter of 1917 in Ichang.

On June 1, 1918, Meyer boarded a boat for Shanghai, but that evening he fell to his death from the steamer. His body was later found in the Yangtze River 30 miles from Wuhu. He was buried in Shanghai.

In 1920, his former associates at the USDA had a medal struck with funds he had bequeathed to them. In recognition of his contributions and service, the Frank N. Meyer Medal for Plant Genetic Resources is presented yearly for service to the National Plant Germplasm System, whose mission is to preserve the genetic diversity of plants.

Samples of the Guar Li pear (Pyrus ussuriensis) (natural size) collected by Frank Meyer near Beijing in 1916.
Meyer documented deforestation in Hebei,
Frank Meyer photographed this straw building in Xinglong, Hebei in 1916.
Frank Meyer (right) and his assistant Johannis de Leuw (left) in 1915.
Frank Meyer (right) and his assistant Johannis de Leuw (left) in 1915. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

Photographer

Frank Meyer was a prolific photographer of the minutia of daily life. With his snapshot camera he captured laborers at their work, bamboo furniture, boatmen hauling lines, a giant cake made with jujubes, and hundreds more fascinating images. In contrast to Ernest Wilson’s grand, highly composed photographs, Meyer’s are very much of the moment. He was meticulous in explaining not only what was depicted in the image, but also why it was the way it was. All of the quoted extracts included with the photographs illustrating this article are from Meyer’s image captions.

His captions reflect his empathy with the subject matter and the enthusiasm he held about the potential for improvements in economic botany in the West based on his exploration of the East.

We have been fortunate to digitize our collection of 1344 individual Meyer photographs and their descriptions.

Dig Deeper

Meyer’s biographer Isabel S. Cunningham donated her papers and notes to the National Agricultural Library. Learn more here.

Cunningham profiled Meyer in Arnoldia in 1984. Read “Frank Meyer: Agricultural Explorer.”

This article was written with contributions from Sheila Connor.