Botanical exploration in Asia

Botanical Exploration in Asia

 Shennongjia Forest District, Hubei, China
Since the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition, the Arnold Arboretum has focused efforts toward germplasm collection in temperate regions. Much of this work has been conducted through the Arboretum’s participation in the North America-China Plant Exploration Consortium (NACPEC) [pdf]. Beginning with a feasibility expedition in 1991, NACPEC has conducted a total of 12 botanical expeditions to China. These explorations represent a concerted effort to systematically investigate varying climatic areas, habitats, and ecosystems across a wide geographic range. Contributions from these trips have resulted in a wealth of knowledge about the characteristics and ecology of Chinese plants, represented by extensive collection notes and herbarium specimens. Furthermore, by bringing germplasm back to North America and integrating it into the consortium institutions’ living collections, participants collectively learn how these individuals respond to diverse growing conditions in cultivation.

Visit the Explorers Garden, which has acted as a testing ground for plants collected in NACPEC expeditions.

History and Resources

The 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition (SABE) to the Shennongjia Forest District, Hubei Province, China, was the first botanical collecting trip by American scientists to that country since 1949. Two Arboretum staff members, Stephen Spongberg and David Boufford (then at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History) participated in this historic expedition. This expedition was significant because the area visited had high species diversity and because the collected germplasm was widely distributed to a variety of botanical institutions throughout North America and Europe.

Michael Dosmann (then a Putnam Research Fellow) and Peter Del Tredici (then director of living collections) followed the fate of these germplasm collections, establishing an inventory of the living germplasm. The survey will help us better understand the processes of plant introduction and distribution in the modern era. The results of their study have recently been published (Dosmann, M. S. and P. Del Tredici. 2003. Plant introduction, distribution, and survival: a case study of the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition. BioScience 53:588-597.). Reprints of the article are available by request at

Of the original 621 SABE collections, 258 are represented by plants growing in at least 18 different botanical institutions. The fact that 115 of these collections (45 percent) are represented by a single accession growing in a single location suggests that the plant introduction process is much more tenuous than has been generally assumed. This study also highlights the importance of data sharing among botanical institutions as the most effective way of determining the uniqueness of a given collection and assessing its environmental adaptability or invasiveness, or both, over a broad range.

The SABE Living Collections Database contains a complete inventory of the germplasm collected on the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition, including the supplemental collections made by individual participants. In addition to the core listing of germplasm collections brought back as seeds or cuttings, we have cataloged the extant (presently living) collections and cited the institutions that are maintaining them as part of their living collections. The contents of the database are derived from the original collection notes, follow-up inventories, and individual accession information provided by countless institutions. Instructions for using the database are available.

If your institution is cultivating known SABE material not yet included in the this inventory, please send an e-mail to We will make additions periodically. Likewise, please forward any errors that you have detected to the same address. If a particular collection is of interest to you, please contact the institution(s) that maintain it for additional information.