Few things have shaped the Arnold Arboretum’s story like plant exploration. It is as much a part of our institutional DNA as Harvard University and the City of Boston. Our current Campaign for the Living Collections has Arboretum staff trekking across the temperate world to seek out, observe, and collect the trees, shrubs, vines, and occasional herbaceous plants that will inhabit our landscape for decades if not centuries to come. We leave the manicured living collections and step into the wilds, only to complete the circle by bringing plants back with us. As we celebrate these current accomplishments, we also look back to previous achievements.
The venturing began soon after the ink was dry on the original founding documents. Charles Sprague Sargent, in his first few decades as director, undertook some of the most laudable plant exploration activities in the Arboretum’s history. He repeatedly zigzagged across the continent studying its forests and examining its trees as he compiled the Report on the Forests of North America (1884), and later the epic, fourteen-volume Silva of North America (1891 to 1902). His detailed observations and collections of herbarium specimens and seeds were some of the earliest additions to the Arboretum’s growing collections. And, his 1892 expedition to Japan opened his eyes to Asia and its importance to assembling the foremost collection of temperate woody flora on Earth.
While Sargent travelled far and wide, Jackson Dawson (the Arboretum’s first propagator and superintendent) stayed closer to home. To build the earliest collections, he scoured all of New England for plant material, collecting seeds and seedlings of practically every tree and shrub species he could find. Dawson’s tenacity in the first few decades often yielded tens of thousands of young plants in a given year. These collections became the initial backbone of the Arboretum, and many of the trees exist to this day.
Thus, it was no surprise that when a young and inexperienced Ernest Henry Wilson was sent to China in 1899 by England’s Veitch Nursery, he was told to first stop at the Arboretum to meet with these two veteran collectors. Wilson learned not only how to best prepare propagules and plants so they would survive the long trek from China back to England, but also aspects of proper field botany and documentation. The efforts of Wilson and his contemporaries—John Jack, Joseph Rock, Ernest Palmer, Susan McKelvey, to name just a few—yielded an unlimited array of voucher herbarium specimens and countless additions to the living collections. Their writings and field notes illustrate not only their love of the wild, but also of seeing and collecting a plant for the first time. By the 1930s, plant exploration and the Arnold Arboretum became synonymous.
While certainly the Arboretum’s herbarium grew in the intervening years, it was not until a pivotal 1977 expedition to South Korea and Japan that seed collection would rebound as an institutional priority. This spark, not long after the Arboretum’s Centennial, reawakened a sleeping giant, and we have not napped since. On its heels, the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition reintroduced the Arboretum to China.
Additional trips followed, culminating in our present-day collaborative efforts through the North America-China Plant Exploration Consortium. A series of domestic trips also began in 1978, bringing in fresh crops of seed from throughout North America. Before long, cohorts of wispy young saplings grew beneath centenarians, replenishing the collections.
In my second year curating the Arboretum’s collections, I planned my first official collecting trip: an expedition to the Adirondacks in 2008. While botanizing, I could not help but recall Sargent and his instrumental role in preserving that region’s forests. What must he have seen, observed, noted? I wondered how the woods had changed. On each subsequent trip, be it to China and Japan, or Virginia and Illinois, I excitedly do the same, wondering not just of past explorers’ recollections, but also of those yet to come. As the previous generations inspired me, might I be doing the same?
The importance of our collecting ambitions for conservation cannot be overstated, particularly given the great losses in biodiversity—one in five plant species is threatened with extinction. However, in this plant-blind era, I believe our ability to move others is of even greater value. As symbols, we can inspire those around us to open their eyes, see the green world, and explore their own back yards and forests for the very first time.
In 1910, Arboretum plant collector Ernest Wilson encountered a massive katsura in Sichuan Province, China. In 2017, Arboretum plant collectors made a pilgrimage to revisit—and rephotograph—the tree. Author Michael Dosmann was there. Hear his story of restaging the iconic photograph below.