Asia Programs

Asia Programs at the Arnold Arboretum

The forests of Asia are among Earth’s most threatened ecosystems. The Arnold Arboretum is committed to understanding and preserving the biodiversity of these forests, via research, capacity building, and informatics support. The Arboretum has worked at the forefront of plant biology research in East and Southeast Asia for many decades. Today our researchers are active in the core fields of plant species discovery, biogeography, forest ecology, and climate change. Educational activities supported by the Arboretum have changed the lives and advanced the careers of Harvard students and young Asian researchers alike, from the 1920s to the present.

120 Years of the Arnold Arboretum in Asia

Today’s research and education activities in Asia stand on a foundation of scientific and human resources built over twelve decades.

E.H. WilsonThe Sargent Era

  • Arnold Arboretum Founding Director Charles Sprague Sargent made a collecting trip to Japan in 1892.
  • Arnold Arboretum plant collector Ernest Henry Wilson made two trips to China (1906, 1910), two trips to Japan, and one trip to Korea.
  • Staff member J.G. Jack made trips to Japan, China, and Korea in 1905.
  • Elmer Drew Merrill, who would later become director of the Arboretum, traveled to the Philippines in 1902, beginning work that would become his seminal Flora of the Philippines (Hay, 1998)
  • Camillo Schneider of Germany, stranded in China at the outbreak of World War I, collected specimens in Yunnan for the Arboretum from 1914 to 1918.

Flowering of Chinese botany

  • Arboretum participates in training young Chinese scientists (Del Tredici, 2007).
  • Leonard Brass spent a significant amount of time in New Guinea and other locations, collecting for the Arboretum through the Archbold expeditions.
  • By 1921, revised USDA regulations limited the Arboretum’s ability to import plants and seeds.
  • Sargent commissions Joseph Rock to collect for the Arboretum in China and Tibet (1924). The three-year expedition garnered more than 20,000 herbarium specimens, several hundred packets of seeds, and 653 photographs.
  • Shiu Ying Hu collected for the Arboretum from 1939-1940, becoming the first female plant collector to brave the bandit-infested Chinese frontier.
  • Seeds of Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood), first collected by Chinese botanists in 1947, were distributed by the Arboretum to botanical gardens around the world in 1948.
  • Chinese botanists published the first volume of a national flora, Flora Reipublicae Popularis Sinicae (FRPS), in 1959. Though additional volumes were initially slow to appear, rapid progess after 1977 enabled the FRPS to be completed in 2004.
  • See a gallery of Chinese plants growing at the Arnold Arboretum.

Tropical Asian research and training

  • In 1977, Peter Stevens, a Clusiaceae and Ericaceae expert with extensive field experience in New Guinea, became Assistant Professor of Biology at Harvard and Associate Curator of the Arnold Arboretum.
  • In 1978, Peter Ashton became director of the Arnold Arboretum. A Dipterocarpaceae expert with years of expeditionary experience in Southeast Asia, Ashton expands the Arboretum’s field and herbarium activities in Asia.
  • The Arboretum participated in the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition to China.
  • Editorial work on the Flora of China project began in 1988.
  • Robert Cook became director in 1989, continuing the Arboretum’s extensive commitment to activities in Asia.
  • John Burley and Jim Jarvie began Indonesian collecting and capacity building in the early 1990s. Burley discovered the anti-AIDS properties of Calophyllum lanigerum var. austrocoriaceum (Powell, 1999).
  • In the late 1990s, David Middleton made many trips to study the flora of Thailand.
  • Arnold Arboretum scientist Peter Del Tredici joined NACPEC collecting expeditions in China in 1994 and 1997.

Integrative Asian botany

As political and cultural realities have changed in the last decade, so has the nature of the Arboretum’s work in Asia. Research is now heavily field-based, and staff prioritize the building of long-term, collaborative partnerships with national institutions and scientists. Believing that “the partnership is the platform,” the Arboretum strives for meaningful co-authorship of projects and publications.

  • With funds from the National Science Foundation, David Boufford and colleagues participated in several expeditions to the Hengduan Mountains biodiversity hotspot.
  • Wayne Takeuchi collects extensively for the Arboretum in Papua New Guinea. See Wayne’s Arnold Arboretum herbarium collections, or collections with images in JSTOR Plants.
  • In 2004, Stuart Davies became director of the Center for Tropical Forest Science. With major support from the Arnold Arboretum, CTFS moved its headquarters to Harvard University until 2012.
  • After serving as a Mercer Fellow in the late 1990s, Campbell Webb became a staff research scientist based in Indonesia. For details on his current research (with co-PI Sarah Mathews, please visit the project website. Field activities are also covered live in an Arnold Arboretum blog.
  • Curator of Living Collections Michael Dosmann joined a NACPEC collecting expedition in China in 2010.
  • Ned Friedman became director in 2011, reaffirming the Arboretum’s commitment to the Asian research program.
  • The Shiu-Ying Hu Student/Postdoctoral Exchange Award was established in 2013. The Hu Award supports research projects the involve the exchange of students and postdoctoral researchers between the People’s Republic of China and Harvard University.