The history of plant exploration is as old as human history itself. People have been discovering, collecting, and moving plants for eons, and the process is not likely to stop any time soon. Indeed, it is as ancient as the practice of agriculture itself—it’s part of our genetic heritage. The challenge plant collectors face today is how to continue their work without causing further problems for our already badly damaged environment. Despite the best efforts of many research scientists, we have yet to develop a truly reliable way of predicting whether an unknown plant will be problematic without actually growing it under a variety of conditions to see how it behaves. Botanical gardens, with their relatively secure perimeters and their commitment to science over commerce, are places where new plant introductions can and should be tested for a variety of traits including their potential invasiveness.

As the world environment continues to deteriorate as a result of human-induced phenomena such as acid rain and climate change, there can be little doubt but that we are going to need tough, adaptable plants for our managed landscapes more than ever. Many of our native species—including such familiar trees as American elm, eastern hemlock, sugar maple, and white and green ash—are no longer planted in our cities because of insect, disease, or stress susceptibility. We have a real need to replace them with stress-tolerant, non-invasive species that can survive all the abuse that people throw at them. Some of these plants of the future may be native to North America, but I can guarantee you that some of them—either as species or as hybrids—will come from Central and Eastern Asia.

And that’s where the North America–China Plant Exploration Consortium comes in. For the past twenty years this collaborative organization has made it a priority to try to deal with future horticultural problems without creating new ones in the process. The organization is devoted to the collection, propagation, and study of plants in their native habitats, with a potential outcome of selection and eventual introduction. There can be little doubt but that plant diversity—in all its glorious forms—is going to be crucial in keeping the planet habitable, most especially for humans.

Peter Del Tredici is a Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum.

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.