The leaves and friable soil slipped beneath us as we climbed—hand over hand—up the slope, careful not to send more boulders ricocheting down the hillside. Luckily, our team was spread out in a near horizontal line, all wearing safety helmets in case more wayward rocks came tumbling down (they did). The bullseye above us was a series of gray-to-orange barked trees, camouflaged against the backdrop: Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia). Although the species is common in cultivation, accessions of documented Japanese provenance are relatively rare within garden and arboretum collections. Thus, we found ourselves in this mesic forest near Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, joined by Morris Arboretum’s Anthony Aiello and Polly Hill Arboretum’s Todd Rounsaville (Polly Hill and the Arnold Arboreta both hold Nationally Accredited™ stewartia collections). Our visit to this rocky slope is part of a broader expedition (12–28 September, 2018) that focuses upon Japan’s temperate woody flora, particularly those species of high conservation and research value, and is supported by the Plant Collecting Collaborative (PCC), of which our three arboreta are members.

Collecting Lyonia ovalifolia
Tatsuhiko, Steve, and Mineaki pose next to Lyonia ovalifolia, a Ericaceous small tree related to the maleberry of New England.

Our in-country colleagues are Utsunomiya University Professor of Forestry Mineaki Aizawa and his graduate student Tatsuhiko Shibano, both incredible field botanists and consummate caretakers. Armed with our target list of high-priority species, they have led us through forests supporting these and other charismatic plants. Japan’s plant diversity is astounding, luring Arboretum explorers here for some 125 years. This long-term relationship has left a memorable mark: plants of Japanese provenance rank third within the Arboretum’s living collections (behind the United States and China), with 11% of our accessions hailing from the country. Our last expedition to Japan, however, was in 1977—some 41 years ago—and it has been wonderful to finally return as part of the Arboretum’s Campaign for the Living Collections.

Collecting stewartia fruits
The team keeps an eye open for Japanese stewartia fruits.

The maples in Japan are as gorgeous as they are plentiful, and so far we have made collections from nine separate species, including the endangered Miyabe maple (Acer miyabei) from a population just discovered a few years ago. Two species each of beech (Fagus), hemlock (Tsuga), and fir (Abies) are also in the tally, as well as quite a few exemplars from the shrub layer. These include three species of hydrangea, five rhododendrons, and the unusual Elliottia paniculata, an Ericaceous (heather family) species held in fewer than ten gardens on Earth. Oh, and let’s not forget the Japanese stewartia—our harrowing efforts along the bluff proved fruitful: a bounty of seeds await our preparation and shipment back to the US.

Japanese stewartia bark
While the bark of Japanese stewartia stands out against the green, it blends in perfectly with the brown and gray of the soil.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.

For more tree-entangled art, science, and writing, subscribe to Arnoldia by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum.