1984 Second Sino-American Botanical Expedition to Yunnan, China


1984 Second Sino-American Botanical Expedition to Yunnan, China

In June of 1984, the second Sino-American Botanical Expedition (SABE) set off to southwestern China to explore Yunnan Province. The American team was led by David E. Boufford, who had participated in the first SABE in 1980, prior to gaining a position as Curatorial Taxonomist for the Arnold Arboretum in 1983. He was accompanied by Bruce Bartholomew of the California Academy of Sciences, Dan H. Nicolson of the Smithsonian Institution, and Paul L. Redfearn of Southwest Missouri State University. They were joined by the Chinese team, made up of Professors His-wen, Shao-wen Yu, and Yong-ge Su from Yunnan’s Kunming Institute of Botany, and Tsun-Shen Ying, Si He, and Cheng-gong Ma from the Institute of Botany, Beijing.

The expedition centered around the Cangshan Mountain Range in the Dali Autonomous Region of northwestern Yunnan, peaked by Malong with a summit of 4,122 m (13,500 ft) above sea level. In contrast to the region explored in the 1980 SABE, this area’s flora is more similar to that of northern Thailand and Burma than that of central China – or North America. It had been an area explored by the famous French missionary and botanist Père Delavay a century before, and the explorers were excited to retrace his footsteps. Thus, from June to September, the scientists hiked nearly 8-10 hours a day, oftentimes fighting torrential rain and terrestrial leeches while collecting specimens.

Although the region is incredibly rich in biodiversity, it was surrounded by mountain ranges stripped of all trees and shrubs. This barren land was the product of thousands of years of human habitation and agricultural practices, which included gathering wood for fuel and clear-cutting the land to make way for grazing animals. However, by the early 1980s, this kind of environmental carnage was gaining attention in China, and many areas of great ecological importance began to be regulated and set aside as preserves. These more stringent controls limited the botanical explorers to collecting only herbarium vouchers– no seeds or plants could be collected – but the specimens they brought back were notable. Plants they encountered included the incredibly rare Epilobium blinii, a member of the Onagraceae with striking rose-pink petals known to have been collected only once in the previous 35 years. They also traversed through a stunning forest of Rhododendron sinogrande, comprising specimens with trunks 50 cm (20 in) in diameter and reaching heights of over 30 m (98 ft), their leaves 60-70 cm (24-28 in) long and 30 cm (12 in) wide.

By the end of the trip, the team had made 1,653 distinct collections; with duplicates the total count was 19,015 herbarium specimens! Individual sets were distributed to a number of Chinese and American herbaria, with the most complete set remaining in China. With respect to the American sets, the herbarium labels were generated back at the California Academy of Sciences using a computer, most likely the first time that this technology had ever been used for vouchers collected in China.

Additional Resources

Boufford, David E., and Bartholomew, Bruce. “The 1984 Sino-American Botanical Expedition to Yunnan, China” Arnoldia 46(4) 1986 [pdf].