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1927 Map of the Arboretum

1909 - 1912: Expedition to Northern China

Six strong men photographed by William Purdom at an August games in Mongolia in 1909. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.
Six strong men photographed by William Purdom at an August games in Mongolia in 1909.

Plants collected on this Expedition

Plant ID Accession Date Received As Origin Source

Expedition Stats


Event Type
Collection Type
Germplasm, Herbarium Specimens
Arnold Arboretum Participants
William M. Purdom
Other Institution(s)
Veitch Nurseries (funding and recipient of germplasm)

From 1909 to 1912, William Purdom led a botanical expedition north-central China. With plant presses and Sanderson camera he explored in the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Hebei, and Shaanxi jointly for the Arnold Arboretum and Veitch Nursery.

The expedition offered an opportunity, in Arboretum director Charles Sprague Sargent’s words, “to bring into our gardens Chinese plants from regions with climates even more severe than those of New England.” Sargent desired the broadest floristic representation of Chinese taxa Taxon: In biology, a taxon (plural taxa) is a group of one or more populations of an organism or organisms seen by taxonomists to form a unit. for the Arboretum’s living collections. This expedition was intended to complement Ernest Henry Wilson’s collecting efforts in Sichuan and Hubei Provinces to the south.

Purdom – Plant Explorer

William Purdom hailed from Cumbria in the north of England. He trained as a gardener and worked for several firms including the famed Veitch Nursery before becoming an employee and student at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

After collecting for the Arboretum, Purdom teamed up with plantsman Reginald Farrer. They continued explorations in the Tibetan border region during 1914–1916. There they collected many new alpine plants, such as the fragrant viburnum (Viburnam farreri), and a species of butterfly bush (Buddleia farreri now B. crispa).

At the conclusion of their expedition, Purdom remained in China and took a position as division chief in the recently formed Chinese Forest Service. As part of his work, he established tree nurseries to aid in reforestation of the Chinese countryside. Sadly, he died on November 7, 1921, when he succumbed to complications following a minor operation.

The Expedition

1909 Season

Purdom landed in Shanghai, China at the end of March from Vancouver, Canada. There he met Ernest Henry Wilson who had finished his 1907-1909 expedition and would soon leave for home by way of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Purdom quickly made his way to Beijing, his jumping off point, but faced a month’s delay due to problems securing his passport. He was not idle however. There were supplies to organize and introductions to the British and American counsels in the city to be made.

He made a short trip to the Badaling area (Nankow Pass) and Zhangjiakou (Kalgan), Hebei near the Great Wall of China, accompanied by Colonel Abbot Anderson, commander of the British Legation guard. Purdom used this as a practice run at handling a mule train like that he would command on the expedition. Since his arrival in China, Purdom had applied himself learning the Chinese language and his new knowledge stood him in good stead on this short trip.

By early May, his passports had arrived and he set off to Chengde (Jehol), Hebei. There the Imperial hunting grounds had over the past decades been encroached upon by settlements. Much of the forest had been cut for fuel and timber but he did see notable species of poplars, Tilia, Rhododendron, and other species that he marked for collection in the fall. From Chengde, he made a “circuit” of the Imperial hunting country of Weichang. The region had been badly deforested.

Purdom next traveled southwest towards Wutaishan in Shanxi and then north again where he had hoped to find a species of elm but instead found that the area had been given over to rice cultivation. In late August he was back in Beijing where he obtained a passport to travel to Wutaishan. He arrived at the mountain in mid-September and proceeded to collect around the temples there.

In the beginning of October he returned to Beijing to get a passport to revisit Chengde to collect the plants he had marked in the summer. Wintry weather forced him to detour into Mongolia on his return trip to the city. He finally arrived in the capitol in second week of January in spite of snowstorms and attacks by highwaymen.

In spite of the general state if deforestation in the regions Purdom collected, he managed to send : germplasm{/tooltip] from over 300 species to the Arboretum during the 1909 season.

1910 Season

Purdom’s 1910 collecting season started in April when he journeyed to Taiyuan, Shanxi. From Taiyuan he took a lengthy and circuitous route north and west, then south to reach a location described by botanist Emil Bretschneider called Moutan Shan where Moutan peonies were reputed to grow. Unfortunately, he found none but did locate other interesting woody plants including lilacs and a number of rosaceous species.

He reached the city of Xian in early June and after a brief sojourn there he was off again on the 16th to the Qinling Mountains in southern Shaanxi. His destination was Mount Taibai (Tai-Pei-Shan) the highest point of the range and an area sacred in Taoism. The heavy rain that accompanied his visit to the mountain was viewed with suspicion by the local priests who sought to stir up trouble, as Purdom related later,

“The trip to Tai-pei-shan is full of interest, the flora being particularly so. I might say that my presence on this mount caused the Priests to give me trouble, they blamed my presence as being the cause of the heavy rain. For a time things were not at all bright; so I sent a man down the mountain with a letter to Sianfu & Peking, I am pleased to say after official interference the Priests were quiet.”

William Purdom to Charles Sargent, August 28, 1910

His party returned to Xian at the end of August because several of his team had fallen sick. Then returned to the mountain to continue collecting before continuing on to

1911 Season

Also, his efforts were significantly hampered by widespread political instability of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911.

Correspondence between Purdom and Sargent after the expedition suggested he would eventually compile a collecting list for the Arboretum, however Purdom may have moved on to other things as there is no known final list of his germplasm and herbarium vouchers from the period.

Purdom – Photographer

Purdom took with him a camera that used glass photographic plates. While he sometimes took portraits of individual plants, he favored wide vistas of the mountains and valleys of China such as those from Jehol (Chengde, Hebei Province), the Mountain Resort of the Qing emperors.

He also proved a gifted portraitist, capturing for posterity a rich anthropological and ethnographic record of the people from the Tibetan border region. His images remain an exceptional visual record of the cultures he photographed.

Back in Boston

Sargent did note in the Arboretum Director’s Reports for fiscal years 1909-10 to 1911-12 that some 173, 304, and 147 seed lots, respectively, came to the Arboretum as a result of Purdom’s efforts — a notable haul. Institutional records show that the Arboretum ended up accessioning 143 of Purdom’s collections, with many of the lineages (either original or re-propagated specimens) thriving in the landscape today, including a prolific blooming Viburnum schensianum (AA# 744-88*B) in Explorers Garden.

Throughout the Arboretum’s history comparisons have often been made between Purdom’s and Wilson’s efforts in China, with assessments that Wilson was able to make a far greater number of germplasm and herbarium collections. However, it is important to consider Purdom’s circumstances. Not only was he less experienced a collector than Wilson, but Purdom was collecting in a region with lower biodiversity, particularly woody plants that would thrive in the Arboretum’s New England landscape.

Dig Deeper

Three biographies have recently been published about William Purdom

Search VIA for digitized versions of his prints. The Arboretum holds 173 contact prints of his photographs in our collection, which we were able to digitize several years ago.