1909-1912 Expedition to Northern China


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1909-1912 Expedition to Northern China

From 1909 to 1912, William Purdom, a nurserymen from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, was contracted by the Arnold Arboretum and Veitch Nurseries to collect and document plants in the largely unexplored Chinese Provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Hebei, and Shaanxi. Purdom’s expedition intended to complement E.H. Wilson’s efforts in Sichuan and Hubei to the south as then director C.S. Sargent was keen on having a broad floristic representation of Chinese taxa in the Arboretum. The expedition offered an opportunity, in Sargent’s words, “to bring into our gardens Chinese plants from regions with climates even more severe than those of New England.”

Purdom arrived in Shanghai, China in March of 1909 and began collecting and shipping plants and seeds to the Arboretum and Veitch Nursery shortly after. Correspondence between Purdom and Sargent after the expedition suggested he would eventually compile a collecting list for the Arboretum, however Purdom may have moved on to other things as there is no known final list of his germplasm and herbarium vouchers from the period. Sargent did note in the Arboretum Director’s Reports for fiscal years 1909-10 to 1911-12 that some 173, 304, and 147 seed lots, respectively, came to the Arboretum as a result of Purdom’s efforts — a notable haul. Institutional records show that the Arboretum ended up accessioning 143 of Purdom’s collections, with many of the lineages (either original or re-propagated specimens) thriving in the landscape today, including a prolific blooming Viburnum schensianum (AA# 744-88*B) in Explorers Garden.

Throughout the Arboretum’s history comparisons have often been made between Purdom’s and Wilson’s efforts in China, with assessments that Wilson was able to make a far greater number of germplasm and herbarium collections. However, it is important to consider Purdom’s circumstances. Not only was he less experienced a collector than Wilson, but Purdom was collecting in a region with lower biodiversity, particularly woody plants that would thrive in the Arboretum’s New England landscape. Also, his efforts were significantly hampered by widespread political instability of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911. Despite these difficulties, Purdom proved to be an excellent photographer and keen ethnographer. His images remain an exceptional visual record of the cultures of the Northern China and the Tibetan border. Search VIA for digitized versions of his prints.

Additional Resources

William Purdom (1880-1921) papers, 1909-1912 [pdf].

Index of Botanical Specimens collected by Purdom [Harvard University Herbaria].

Heriz-Smith, Shirley. “Brightener of British winters: William Purdom in China and Tibet.” Country Life June 5, 1986. pp.1624-5 [HOLLIS].

Pearson, Lisa. “Picturing People: The Photographs of William Purdom.” Library Leaves, September 24, 2014.