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1927 Map of the Arboretum

1980: First Sino-American Botanical Expedition

The Shennongjia Mountains, Hubei. Photograph by Steven Spongberg, September 1980. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.
The Shennongjia Mountains, Hubei, Republic of China. Photograph by Steven Spongberg, September 1980.

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
Steven A. Spongberg
Other Participants
Bruce Bartholomew1, David E. Boufford2, Chang Ao-Lo3, Cheng Zhong3, Ted R. Dudley4, He Shan-An5, Jin Yi-Xin3, Li Qing-Yee3, James L. Luteyn6, Sun Siang-Chung3, Tang Yan-Cheng7, Wan Jiz-Xiang 3, and Ying Tsun-Shen7
Other Institution(s)
1University of California, Berkeley; 2Carnegie Museum of Natural History (later Harvard University); 3Kunming Institute of Botany; 3Wuhan Institute of Botany; 4U.S. National Arboretum; 5Jiangsu Institute of Botany, Nanjing; 6New York Botanical Garden; and 7Institute of Botany, Beijing.
Map of the collecting area for the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition.
Map of the collecting area for the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

The 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition (SABE) marked the first plant collecting trip to China by western botanists since the end of the Chinese Revolution and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This project is a benchmark for the volume and variety of its collections, and for the collaboration of the participants, during what were then escalating Cold War tensions.

Some of the members of the expedition, along with other associates.
Some of the expedition team members with other associates and friends. Photograph by Stephen Spongberg on the Great Wall of China, August 1980. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

Expedition Participants

The joint Chinese-American team working mostly in the species-diverse Shennongjia Forest District and surrounding region in Hubei Province, made 621 germplasm germplasm: collections and 2,085 herbarium collections Herbarium specimen: An herbarium specimen is a pressed and dried plant sample that is generally mounted on a sheet of paper. Specimens can be stored indefinitely and are used for a wide variety of botanical research. . The specimens were widely distributed to a number of botanical institutions throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.

The three-month trip, from mid-August to mid-November 1980, involved 13 botanists from nine institutes in China and the United States.

Horticultural taxonomist Stephen A. Spongberg represented the Arnold Arboretum. Unless otherwise noted, his photographs accompany this article. The original slides are housed in the Arboretum Archives. The American delegation included Bruce Bartholomew of the University of California-Berkeley; David Boufford of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History; Theodore R. Dudley of the United States National Arboretum; and James L. Luteyn of the New York Botanical Garden.

The Chinese team included expedition leader Sun Xiangzhong (Sun Siang-Chung) of the Wuhan Institute of Botany, who oversaw the trip and directed his Chinese colleagues. The other Chinese members were Tang Yan-Cheng and Ying Junshen (Ying Tsun-Shen) of the Institute of Botany, Beijing; He Shan-An of the Jiangsu Institute of Botany, Nanjing; Zheng Zhong (Cheng Zhong), Jin Yi-Xin, and Wan Jiz-Xiang of the Wuhan Institute of Botany; Li Qing-Yee of Wuhan University; and Zhang Aoluo (Chang Ao-Lo) of the Kunming Institute of Botany.

A view from the Cloud Platform at Juyong Pass on the Great Wall.
A bas-relief carving of one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism on the walls of the Cloud Platform at Juyong Pass of the Great Wall.
A view of the Great Wall west of Beijing.
Three Chinese visitors pause to rest in a archway of the Great Wall.

August 16-23

Leaves and a blossom of an Indian lotus (Nelumbo mucifera) at the Beijing Botanic Garden.
Leaves and a blossom of an Indian lotus (Nelumbo mucifera) at the Beijing Botanic Garden. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

Spongberg and his colleagues arrived in Beijing in mid-August. Before venturing into the field they met with their Chinese hosts at the Institute of Botany. Founded in 1950, the Institute focuses on morphology, biology, ecology, paleobotany, the vegetation of China, and in more recent years molecular biology and phylogeny. It was the co-publisher of the monumental Flora of China series. While at the Institute, they spent time in its herbarium. Of particular interest were the type specimens type specimens: of species not represented in the west, such as whitebeam (Sorbus) and Magnolia.

The team visited the Great Wall, where Spongberg noted a large variety of mountain flora. The next day they were introduced to the 1384 acre (560 hectare) Beijing Botanical Garden, which at that time had 3,000 species in cultivation. Notable 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. observed included the yellow-paint maple (Acer pictum), date-plums (Diospyros lotus), and the lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) with it’s striking white bark.

On August 19, the team traveled to Wuhan by air. After settling at their hotel, they met with Ran Chong-shi and Wang-Wu Ling, both of the Wuhan Academy of Sciences, for an initial briefing. At Wuhan Botanical Institute, the group further refined their collecting plans and met with Professor Sun, the expedition director. They had the distinction of being the first foreign visitors to Shennongjia in over 30 years, a rich forest district explored by Ernest Wilson in the early 20th century.

From Wuhan, they traveled to Yichang (Ichang) on August 22 by minibus. Plane trees (Platanus), Chinese elms (Ulmus parvifolia), Cunninghamia, and dawn redwoods (Metasequoia) were all common along the roadsides, along with fields of hemp (Cannabis) and sugar cane. Flooded roads required many detours through the rugged terrain. Once in Xing-shan (Hsing-shan), they entered the ever more mountainous “gorge” country. Spongberg noted the local maize cultivation, the dominant crop, that stretched up the mountainsides on 60 degree slopes.

Boaters near a stone bridge at the Summer Palace, Beijing.
Fruits and leaves of the wax apple Syzygium samarangense.
A commune farm in the road between Yichang and Xing-Shan.
The expedition team at the Wuhan Botanic Garden before leaving for the field.
The valley at Juihuping Forest Farm, the S.A.B.E. base camp.
The valley at Juihuping Forest Farm, the SABE base camp. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

August 24-31

This week was spent in the field collecting. Each day the team explored a different local terrain. Tuesday the 26th took them to a high-altitude area (9,842 feet, 3,000 meters) in which Spongberg noted less biodiversity than they had seen lower down. The next day they explored some canyon areas and found several species of Cotoneaster and densehead mountain ash (Sorbus alnifolia).

On the 29th, they moved to a new collecting area about 50 miles (80 kilometers) away. Here they collected Emmenopterys henryi, a plant first introduced by Wilson in 1907, the conifer Keteleeria davidiana, and the goat horn tree (Carrierea calcina). While making his way down a steep slope, Spongberg slipped and landed on the stump of a newly cut tree. This caused a tailbone injury that laid him up for several days and plagued him for the remainder of the trip. The other team members continued their field collections. 

Team members examine a massive Keteleeria davidiana in Shennongjia.
James Luteyn and Bruce Bartholomew relax in camp near the Mengjia River.
Mr. Mucheng pulls a cart filled with lumber on the road at Jiuchong River Valley at Shennongjia.
Barbers cutting workers' hair in the Hongriwan Construction Camp, Shennongjia.
A S.A.B.E. team member holds a stem of Hemsleya chinensis in Shennongjia.
A SABE. team member holds a stem of Hemsleya chinensis in Shennongjia. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

September 1-8

Tuesday the 2nd, the team moved their temporary camp and collecting area farther up the mountain for three days. They enjoyed clear hot weather in the field.

Spongberg retreated down to the base camp to continue his recovery and attend to the backlog of collections. His tailbone was still very sore but he could finally move again without great pain. He spent the next several days sorting and dividing the materials.

The weather then turned cold and wet, which hampered their progress and made for several miserable days. They traveled to Guan-men shan (Guang Ming Shan) on the 8th.

September 9-16

Clouds engulf the peaks near Xiaolongtan (Dalongtan) at 7,546-8,530 feet (2,300-2,600 meters).
Clouds engulf the peaks near Xiao-long-tan and Da-long-tan at 7,546-8,530 feet (2,300-2,600 meters). Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

The next day, the group traveled to area between Xiao-long-tan and Da-long-tan. There they tended to the backlog of collected germplasm and specimens, and dried out their soaking clothes and equipment.

After this brief respite, they were on to “little Shennongjia” (Xiaoshennongjia, a sub-alpine area) and the “Large Nine Lakes Region,” (Da-Jiu-Hu). There they collected mostly Tibetan whitebeam (Sorbus thibetica) and Folgner’s whitebeam (S. folgneri).

On Friday, they drove 50 miles (80 kilometers) to Da-Jiu-Hu Valley. They collected there and on the slopes of Mu-shan for the next several days. After returning to their base camp, another 50 mile (80 kilometer) drive over rough roads, they spent a day in camp, resting and processing the collections.

Team members carrying loads of collections on poles on a hill at Xiaoshennongjia.
A picnic lunch of steamsed buns en route to Big Nine Lakes (Dajiuhu), Shennongjia.
Viburnum fruits at Dajiuhu, Shennongjia.
Baskets of drying medicinal herbs surrounding a basket of drying silk worms (also medicinal) at the center. At Dajiuhu, Shennongjia.
Professor Tang Yan-chen of the Institute of Botany, Academia Sinica, Beijing.
Corn and tobacco dry on posts in farm yard in a side canyon of the Dangyang River, Shennongjia.
Corn and tobacco dry on posts in farm yard in a side canyon of the Dangyang River, Shennongjia. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

September 17-24

The next morning the team explored the adjacent ravines where they collected species of Viburnum. Back at camp, they ate a “fondue” (hotpot) dinner of meat from a goat that had infiltrated their shower room several times. The next day the group made a steep climb to reach the deep canyon of the Yingyu River. There they collected material from several rare plants associated with Ernest Wilson, a dove tree (Davidia involucrata) that they found along the road, and Sinowilsonia, and the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) in the canyon. After dinner that evening, they continued pressing specimens.

The next day the group traveled to Song-lo commune where they spent the rest of the week. Notable collections from the Song-lo area included Chinese stewartia (Stewartia sinensis) and the Chinese wingnut (Pterocarya stenoptera). Unfortunately, inclement weather hampered their progress, but they managed to collect additional species of Sorbus during the return to their base camp.

A child holds an infant at the Yingyu River Canyon, Shennongjia.
Leaves and fruit of the dove tree Davidia involucrata var. villmoriniana. Yingyu River Canyon, Shennongjia.
A view along road between Baicaoping and Bajiaomaio, Shennongjia.
A man and two children standing beside a field in which potatoes and hemp are being grown near Guijuyuan, Shennongjia.
Team members pressing plants at the base camp in Shennongjia.
Team members pressing plants at the base camp in Shennongjia. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

September 25-October 3

Over the next several days, the group continued collecting north of the camp. They gathered more seeds Sorbus and Alangium, as well as a trifoliolate maple which Spongberg calls Acer szechuanica in his notes, but is today called A. sutchuenense. Saturday the 28th, the team began to disassemble their base camp and prepared to return to Yichang on Monday.

After reaching Xing-Shan (Shing-shan), an area with an abundance of cultivated dawn redwoods (Metasequoia), they made more collections, notable among the finds was a holly (Ilex macrocarpa). In Yichang, Spongberg was hospitalized for the injury he had sustained earlier in the month. After a period of rest and convalescence, the group boarded a steamer on the Yangtze River destined for the Wanzhou District (Wan-Xian, Sichuan).

Chinese members of the S.A.B.E. team that collected and assisted in Shennongjia.
Loading crates with specimens on to the truck that would take them to Wuhan. Jiuhuping, Shennongjia.
Ilex macrocarpa in a side canyon of the Dangyang River near Sanduihe.
The rice harvest near Xingshan, with corn growing on the steep slopes behind.
The American members of the S.A.B.E. team pose before the dawn redwood (Metasequoia) type tree. From left to right, David Boufford, James Luteyn, Bruce Bartholomew, Stephen Spongberg, and Ted Dudley.
The American members of the SABE team pose before the dawn redwood (Metasequoia) type tree. From left to right, David Boufford, James Luteyn, Bruce Bartholomew, Stephen Spongberg, and Theodore Dudley. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

October 4-10

From Wanzhou the team was ferried across the Yangtze to the south bank of the river for the road trip to Lichuan in Western Hubei. During their travel to the Metasequoia Valley they again saw many dawn redwoods along the way. On October 5, the explorers visited the type tree type tree: of the species in Modaoqi.

The next day the group drove to Xiaohe Commune (Shui-sa-pa or Shushaba) in the heart of dawn redwood country to collect. There they were the center of attention, as all the town came out to see the foreigners. Team members interviewed several older local residents who remembered Americans from the Gressitt expedition collecting dawn redwood there in 1948. Only 161 collections were made in the valley, primarily because travel between Lichuan, where the expeditions members were required to stay, and Xiaohe involved a three hour commute each way.

During that time a few team members fell ill with colds. On Friday the 10th, the team returned to Wanzhou via the dawn redwood type tree.

October 11-October 24

There they had several days to rest, shop, and recuperate from their illnesses. The group returned to Wuhan by boat on the 15th, which also happened to be Spongberg’s birthday.

In Wuhan, they spent their time at the Institute of Botany, where they reviewed their notes and collections from Shennongjia and prepared them for shipment to the United States. On the 21st, the American members of the team presented seminars for the Institute staff. During this time Boufford and Spongberg also studied in the herbarium and met with Hubei officials regarding the field collections.

Boats on the Yangtze River reminiscent of Ernest Wilson's houseboat the Harvard.
The residents of Modaoqi observing the S.A.B.E. team as they come into the village.
Two men from Modaoqi who remembered the 1948 collecting trip by Gressitt to the Metasequoia area.
Hawthorn fruits, sunflower seeds, peanuts, and chestnuts for sale in baskets at the Lichuan market.
An eight year old boy stands beside a tree on the east side of Metasequoia Valley in Shui-sa-pa. Photograph by David Boufford.
A woman chops hot peppers in the market at Lichuan.
A woman weighs a cabbage in the market in Lichuan.
Professors Ying Tsun-Shen, He Shan-An, Tang Yan-Cheng, Cheng Zhong, and Chang Ao-Lo in Wuhan.

October 25-November 3

A porcelain lion at Sun Yat-Sen's mausoleum in Nanjing.
A porcelain lion at Sun Yat-Sen’s mausoleum in Nanjing.

The team arrived by boat at Nanjing (Nanking) late in the evening of the 25th. The next day they visited tombs of the ancient dynasties, Sun Yat-Sen’s mausoleum, and a temple. They also shopped for souvenirs before proceeding to the Jiangsu Institute of Botany, Mem. Sun Yatsen, and the Nanjing Botanic Garden, both of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Spongberg spent time at the Herbarium at Nanjing University where he reviewed more Sorbus.

They then traveled to Suzhou, Jiangsu Province (Suchow) by train on the 28th. The next day they visited six gardens; Spongberg comments they had “much repetition”. The following day they were taken to a forest outside the city that had a large number of sweet gum (Liquidamber) trees.

After bidding farewell to their host Professor He Shan-An, they continued on by train to Shanghai, then to Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province (Hanchow). They visited a number of points of interest and shops in the area. The next day, they visited the Hangzhou Botanic Garden and admired the Penjing collection. Spongberg remarks in his diary “good herbarium and best living collections”.

People ride bicycles along the sacred way to Emperor Hung Wu's mausoleum (Ming Dynasty) in the Purple and Gold Mountains east of Nanjing.
Decorative pebble pavement in Nanjing Botanic Garden.
The view through a moon gate at the Suzhou Botanic Garden.
The historical Huxinting teahouse in Shanghai. This well known site was visited by John Jack in 1905.
The historical Huxinting teahouse in Shanghai. This well known site was also visited by John Jack in 1905. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

November 3-November 11

On November 3, they visited the Fudan University Herbarium, then met with Professor Tang for dinner. Then it was on to the herbarium at China Normal University and the Shanghai Museum of Natural History and its herbarium to see the collections.

Next day they flew to Kunming, Yunnan. After settling into their American-style lodgings, they collected some seeds of Rhododendron, Vaccinium, and Lyonia in the surrounding woods in the afternoon. That evening they attended a musical production featuring some of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities. They spent the following day at the Kunming Institute of Botany touring the laboratories and collections. Spongberg, Boufford, and Luteyn spent the next several days in the herbarium while Dudley and Bartholomew went to the Shilin Stone Forest scenic area. On Monday the 10th the group visited the Western Hills, where they collected seed of pickly ash (Zanthoxylum), Cotoneaster, andromeda (Pieris), Myrsine.

Their three-month odyssey concluded on November 11 when they flew to Beijing, and then home to the United States.

A carving at Yu the Mandarin's garden in Shanghai. Founded in 1537, restored 1956.
Plants being raised by pot culture in nursery area at the Kunming Institute of Botany.
The decorated façade of a temple in the Western Hills near Kunming.
S.A.B.E. team members and Kunming Institute of Botany staff enjoy an al fresco picnic lunch.
A frothy spray of Sorbus yuana flowers. The seed from which this plant was grown was collected on this expedition.
A frothy spray of Sorbus yuana (accession 1539-80*B) flowers. The seed from which this plant was grown was collected in Shennongjia. Bob Mayer, 2009.

Back in Boston

The expedition was highly successful both in terms of the number of seeds and specimens collected but also for the good will and cooperation it fostered between Chinese and American botanists. It paved the way for the second SABE in 1984 and more recently the creation of the North America – China Plant Exploration Cooperative (NACPEC).


Plants from the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expeditions can be seen throughout the Arboretum landscape. Search “1980 S.A.B.E.” in the ‘Collector’ field (Advanced Search) of Arboretum Explorer for a list of living specimens and their present locations.

Arnoldia devoted and entire issue to the dawn redwood in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of the first shipment of seed to the Arboretum. Read Bartholomew, Boufford, and Spongberg’s article “Metasequoia glyptostroboides—Its Status in Central China in 1980.” from that issue.

Read the trip report containing contributions from all the participants, in the Journal of the Arnold Arboretum.

Arboretum Keeper of the Living Collections Michael Dosmann and Senior Research Scientist Emeritus Peter Del Tredici analyzed the collections made on this trip in their article “Plant Introduction, Distribution, and Survival: A Case Study of the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition.” 2003. BioScience: 53(6) [may require Harvard University ID to access full text].

Stephen Spongberg recalled the 1980 SABE in “A Sino-American Sampler,” in Arnoldia in 1991.

Lisa Pearson and Larissa Glasser wrote and designed this expedition page. David Boufford provided editorial commentary and corrections to the text.