Extinction is forever. The mounting effects of a changing climate and the alteration of environments due to human activities threaten the survival of roughly one out of every three plant species in the world. As habitats change and as organisms disappear worldwide, institutional efforts to discover, study, and preserve plants is not only instructive and enriching but also vital to protecting our precious biodiversity. With extensive plant collections, a strong legacy of exploration, affiliation with a major research university, and new state-of-the-art facilities for scientific investigation, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University is well-positioned to enhance its capacity to assist humanity in addressing critical global challenges. In advance of its sesquicentennial in 2022, the Arboretum aspires to both preserve its legacy and secure its future through a ten-year initiative focused on plant exploration and collections development: The Campaign for the Living Collections.
The Arnold Arboretum’s collections of woody plants—gathered through nearly a century and a half of historic plant collecting expeditions—are recognized as one of the most comprehensive and best documented of their kind in the world. Their breadth and the quality of their documentation make the Arboretum a primary destination for the study and appreciation of woody plants, particularly those endemic to eastern North America and eastern Asia. By ambitiously strengthening the organismic collections of the Arnold Arboretum, the Campaign for the Living Collections aims to ensure that the Arboretum remains at the leading edge of both integrated research in the plant and environmental sciences as well as in botanical garden collections development. At the same time, many of the Arboretum’s 15,000 accessioned plants are either critically endangered or extinct in their native habitats, and the Campaign is also designed to enhance the institution’s historical role in collecting these plants for study and providing a safe harbor from loss.
Among the principles guiding collecting efforts in the Campaign is a commitment to strengthening species representation both generally and within a number of prioritized genera/clades, as well as acquiring greater genetic diversity across populations. The Arboretum’s historical role in collecting, testing, and introducing plants native to eastern Asia—particularly temperate China—has made its collections of these flora without peer in the West, and the Campaign will enhance the activities and international partnerships that have promoted the development of disjunct collections since the late 1800s. Pursuant with its legacy of plant introduction and providing developmental support to horticulture worldwide, the Arboretum will also focus upon the acquisition and successful cultivation of taxa currently or historically perceived as marginal for growth in Boston, testing and introducing plants capable of surviving and flourishing in a warmer New England.
Guiding acquisitions is a target list comprising some 400 taxa of woody plants, with each target for acquisition falling into one or more prioritized categories within the Campaign’s guiding principles. Individual targets represent taxa that the Arboretum has never attempted to grow, those attempted unsuccessfully in the past yet worthy of further efforts, as well as those currently but insufficiently represented in the collection. Other targets are intended to bolster the Arboretum’s role as a reference and conservation collection for such genera as Acer (maple), Carya (hickory), Syringa (lilac), Fagus (beech), and others. Plants from eastern Asia and China in particular will also be prioritized to both conserve threatened taxa and to enhance the Arboretum’s historical focus on these flora. The first expeditions of the Campaign are being mounted this September–Manager of Plant Records Kyle Port is collecting plants in the forests and preserves of northern Idaho, while Curator of Living Collections Michael Dosmann travels to China to explore its species-rich western provinces with colleagues from NACPEC (North America-China Plant Exploration Consortium).
The Arboretum seeks the help of its supporters and the community to help advance the Campaign for the Living Collections through donor support. Funding will advance collecting expeditions both domestically and internationally, leveraging deep and historical relationships with scientists and botanical gardens worldwide to acquire new species and extend population sampling of currently held taxa. It will also boost operations for propagating and cultivating newly acquired plant material, the stewardship and care of these plants in the Arboretum landscape, and curatorial activities to document and evaluate taxa for scientists, horticulturists, and the public. All of these efforts will be enhanced by advanced databasing, outreach to public gardens and the scientific community, and online engagement with the public. The success of the Campaign for the Living Collections will ensure that the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University continues to operate at the forefront of global efforts to discover, study, and protect biodiversity for improved outcomes in the climate crisis and promote a more hospitable environment for all living things.