Steve Spongberg models a traditional style of Chinese headgear in Hubei Province in 1980.
Steve Spongberg models a traditional style of Chinese headgear in Hubei Province in 1980. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

Last week we were saddened to learn that Stephen Alan Spongberg, Arboretum Curator Emeritus, passed away after a long illness. He will be sorely missed.

Steve was born in Illinois in 1942. He received his undergraduate education at Rockford College and his doctorate in botany from the University of North Carolina. In 1970, he came to the Arboretum as an assistant curator for the Generic Flora of the Southeastern United States Project. He became a horticultural taxonomist on the staff in 1976. In this role, Steve curated plants being cultivated in the living collections as well as important specimens in the Arnold Arboretum herbarium. In fact, as a plant explorer, he was often the one collecting both the seed that became the plant, and the twig that was mounted for the herbarium.

Steve was a busy editor and editorial board member. He edited the Journal of the Arnold Arboretum from 1979 to 1990 when it ceased publication. In its pages, the results of the institution’s explorations were documented, in particular the return of Arboretum botanists to Asia in the 1970s and 1980s. The discovery of new species, found as a result of those explorations, came to life in numerous articles. In this period he also wrote A Reunion of Trees, a lavishly illustrated history of plant exploration.

Carl Ferris Miller, Stephen Spongberg, and Harmony Spongberg pose in front of a giant Ginkgo biloba at the Yongmunsa Temple, Yangpyeong County, South Korea. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

He was not content to simply write about plant exploration. Instead he took to the field to collect in North America and Asia. With Richard Weaver, in 1977 they became the first Arboretum explorers to visit Japan and Korea for over 50 years. Steve was also the Arboretum’s representative on the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition (SABE). This groundbreaking trip, a model for international botanical cooperation, was the first exploration in China for western botanists since the Chinese Revolution in 1949. The team visited the home of the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and the Shennonggjia Forestry District, both in Hubei Province.

Steve’s collecting efforts during his career yielded almost 1000 Arboretum accessions. Almost 300 individual plants bearing his name as collector now grow on our grounds. A favorite of Arboretum Keeper of the Living Collections Michael Dosmann is a rare holly (Ilex shennongjiaensis). Steve and the team of Chinese and American botanists on the 1980 SABE found this delightful plant in Hubei. “It was not just new to science,” said Dosmann, “but is charmingly gorgeous with crisp, evergreen leaves.” At the end of that trip, Steve and Theodore Dudley (US National Arboretum) visited the Hangzhou Botanical Garden. There they made a supplemental collection of the seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconiodes), a species that not only dramatically graces the Arboretum’s collections but countless landscapes everywhere.

Outside of the Arboretum, Steve was active in the number of professional organizations, including the Botanical Society of America, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, and the Royal Horticultural Society. In 1997, he received the prestigious Gold Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society for his contributions to horticulture. Cotoneaster spongbergii has been named in his honor.

Upon his retirement from the Arboretum in 1998, Steve was appointed Curator Emeritus in recognition for his service. He soon became the director of the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha’s Vineyard, a position he held until 2004. He and his wife Harmony enjoyed an active retirement on the island.

Written with contributions from Lisa Pearson, Michael Dosmann, Jon Hetman, and Joseph Melanson.