Skip to content
1927 Map of the Arboretum

Plant Exploration

Keeper of the Living Collections Michael Dosmann (far right) and Head of Horticulture Andrew Gapinski (far left) explore a mountainside in Sichuan, China, with collecting partners from the Chengdu Institute of Biology and the Bejing Botanical Garden, September 2017. Photo by Jonathan Shaw/courtesy Harvard Magazine.
Keeper of the Living Collections Michael Dosmann and Head of Horticulture Andrew Gapinski explore a mountainside in Sichuan, China, with collecting partners from the Chengdu Institute of Biology and the Bejing Botanical Garden, September 2017
Wilson's Expedition Caravan, Tachien-lu (Kangding), Sichuan, China, 1908.
Ernest H. Wilson’s Expedition Caravan, Tachien-lu (Kangding), Sichuan, China, 1908. Photograph by Ernest H. Wilson.

From the early decades of its founding, the Arnold Arboretum has built its renowned collections by exploring and gathering plants and herbarium vouchers from native habitats around the globe. Through a variety of means—from engaging individuals to seek and obtain a single taxon to multi-year and collaborative expeditions organized to inventory the flora of a specific region—the Arboretum has led or supported more than 150 discrete collecting events in over 70 countries since the late 1800s. Through this commitment, the Arboretum has amassed a premier living collection of temperate woody plants that is one of the most significant and comprehensive of its kind in the Western World.

Field work to document and obtain both native and exotic species of plants to advance the Arboretum’s mission as a research collection and museum of natural history continues to this day, and has been reinvigorated by the launch of the Campaign for the Living Collections. This 10-year initiative focuses on exploration and international collaboration to document biodiversity, conserve threatened species, and shape the Arboretum for the next century. The Campaign targets the acquisition of nearly 400 individual species of plants—more than 150 of which are new to the Arboretum—to expand and refine the collections as a living repository of natural history. This major initiative builds on the Arboretum’s legacy of discovery while recognizing and forecasting the needs of botanical research, the realities of climate change and habitat loss, and the important role botanical gardens play in documenting and preserving biodiversity.

Keeper of the Living Collections Michael Dosmann and Head of Horticulture Andrew Gapinski explore a mountainside in Sichuan, China, with collecting partners from the Chengdu Institute of Biology and the Bejing Botanical Garden, September 2017
Keeper of the Living Collections Michael Dosmann (far right) and Head of Horticulture Andrew Gapinski (far left) explore a mountainside in Sichuan, China, with collecting partners from the Chengdu Institute of Biology and the Bejing Botanical Garden, September 2017. Photo by Jonathan Shaw/courtesy Harvard Magazine.

In 2015, Arboretum curation and library staff collaborated on Expeditions Unveiled, an extensive and ongoing research project to investigate the history and impact of the Arboretum’s pioneering contributions to plant exploration. The project weaves together documentation from historical sources including annual Director’s Reports, trip reports, collecting lists, and written correspondence, in order to define and enumerate the Arboretum’s plant exploration efforts. It also crafts a system to track, document, and publish results of ongoing and future expeditionary work. The project’s comprehensive database greatly expands the scope of information available to staff, researchers, and the public about these events and their resulting collections.

In 2017, the Arboretum completed The Arnold Arboretum Expedition Tool Kit, a manual which will serve as a reference for the remainder of the Campaign for the Living Collections. A compilation of knowledge and experience from plant collectors for plant collectors, the tool kit includes references to specific resources necessary for a successful expedition.