Wild-Collecting Women: The Arnold Arboretum’s Female Plant Explorers

by Jon Hetman, Director of External Relations & Communications

March 16, 2017

Susan Delano McKelvey

Wild-Collecting Women: The Arnold Arboretum’s Female Plant Explorers

Jenna Zukswert, Living Collections Fellow

Jenna Zukswert, Living Collections Fellow

The first week of my Living Collections Fellowship last June was memorable for many reasons, but in part for the immediate exposure I got to the Arnold Arboretum’s celebrated plant collecting legacy. I joined the 2016 cohort of the Hunnewell Internship Program, Manager of Horticulture Andrew Gapinski, and Living Collections Fellow Robert Dowell on a weekend of collecting and camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. What better way to start contributing as a Fellow than an exciting weekend spent hiking mountains and exploring forests with fellow plant enthusiasts, collecting specimens that will someday end up in the Arboretum landscape?

After two more incredible weeks of plant collecting for the Arboretum’s Campaign for the Living Collections in Kentucky and in the Southern Appalachians last September, I began to reflect on the Arboretum’s long history of collecting expeditions and the female plant explorers who came before me. What is the herstory of Arnold Arboretum expeditions?

In honor of Women’s History Month, I would like to share the stories of some of the important female explorers who helped shape the Arnold Arboretum’s expedition legacy, focusing specifically on women who have participated in official Arnold Arboretum expeditions. Read on to see how these wild-collecting women contributed to the Arnold Arboretum, and to the field of botany.

Susan Delano McKelvey

Susan Delano McKelvey

Susan Delano McKelvey

Not long after coming to the Arnold as a volunteer in 1919, Susan Delano McKelvey joined Professor John George Jack on a five-week plant collecting expedition to Glacier National Park and Montana in 1921. This would be the first of many American expeditions for McKelvey, including a brief trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire as well. Her writing during these early trips captures the busy nature of collecting trips, with which I can now empathize:

 “Rested in am. if it can be so called as I pressed & dried specimens. Can’t possibly label everything now.”

After studying and writing an award-winning book on Syringa (The Lilac: A Monograph), McKelvey shifted her interests to plants of the American Southwest, in particular yuccas. She returned to the Southwest eight times in the late 1920s/early 1930s during what we call the Campaign in the Western United States. At the end of these expeditions throughout Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Oklahoma from 1928 through 1936, after which the Arboretum hired her as a research assistant, McKelvey published Yuccas of the Southwestern United States. Extending from her work in the American Southwest, McKelvey wrote Botanical Exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850, her last book. Unfortunately, none of the 18 accessioned plants that McKelvey contributed to the Arboretum’s living collections are still alive today.

Dr. Shiu-Ying Hu

Shiu-Ying Hu with Hemerocallis planting on Bussey Hill Road. June, 1956. Photographer unknown.

Dr. Shiu-Ying Hu came to Harvard University in 1946 as a graduate student at Radcliffe College, studying hollies (Ilex spp.) and becoming the first Chinese woman to earn a doctoral degree in botany at Harvard. Shortly after graduating, Dr. Hu landed a job at the Arboretum as an herbarium assistant, later remarking that “at that time, racial and sexual discrimination was very heavy, so my salary was about the same as a janitor’s.” During her time at the Arboretum, Dr. Hu started working on the Flora of China, compiling the index for this project.

From 1968 through 1972, Dr. Hu was involved in a campaign that would take her to Hong Kong four times, as well as briefly to Japan and South Korea to study daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.). During her time in Hong Kong, she taught and collected with university students, collecting thousands of herbarium vouchers. One of her many adventures from this time includes her rediscovery of a rare member of the magnolia family (Manglietia fordiana) in the wild. One of Dr. Hu’s Hemerocallis specimens from her time in Japan can still be found along Azalea Border in the Arboretum landscape today (Hemerocallis fulva var. disticha, 628-69*MASS).

Of her second trip to Hong Kong, Dr. Hu wrote: “I can conclude with pride that I have been busy and productive.” Today, Dr. Hu’s legacy at the Arboretum is honored through a research award supporting American-Chinese exchanges for students and post-docs studying the comparative biology of woody plants—Shiu-Ying Hu Student/Postdoctoral Exchange Award.

Susan Kelley

Susan Kelley pressing specimens in mixed broadleaved deciduous forest along the north side of Palongzang Bu on Highway 318 west of Bomi [Zhamo]. July 2000. Photographer: Richard H. Ree

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Susan Kelley, a curatorial associate, participated in an NSF-funded opportunity to explore and document the biodiversity of China’s Hengduan Mountains, a biological “hotspot.” Kelley and her team spent several summers traveling throughout south-central China for this project, documenting the region’s immense plant and fungal diversity. Her descriptions of her expedition in the summer of 2000 detail the incredible people and plants she encountered—from delicate Gentian species growing in mountain soils and Tibetan men wearing Chicago Bulls jackets—as well as experiences like braving hairpin turns along narrow roads above 1,000-ft drops and sampling yak butter in an open-air market in Zhongdian. Of this expedition, Kelley writes:

“The hardships of the trip are long forgotten, and the magic and richness of this remote, exotic land once known as Shangri-La beckons again. Who knows what other botanical treasures are still to be discovered on the rooftop of the world?”

Kelley made other plant collecting trips to Asia as well during her time at the Arboretum, and quite a few specimens that she collected during this time and gave to the Arnold are still present in the landscape, such as Manchurian walnut (Juglans cathayensis, 250-98*A and 250-98*C), Formosan juniper (Juniperus formosana, 280-98*A), Rosa transmorrisonensis (258-98*C), and Formosan spiraea (Spiraea formosana, 261-98*A), all collected in Taiwan.

Natalie Buckley-Medrano

Natalie Buckley-Medrano

Natalie Buckley-Medrano, 2016 Hunnewell intern

Over fifteen years later, one year into the Campaign for the Living Collections, a weekend trip in New Hampshire with the Hunnewell intern cohort and Living Collection Fellows became an official plant expedition thanks to good planning by Robert Dowell. Interns snagged four of the five target species by Sunday morning, but the last (and most difficult) one to find and identify remained: the low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium).

Undeterred by the challenge, intern Natalie Buckley-Medrano flipped to the entry for V. angustifolium in Flora Nova Angliae (The Flora of New England) and studied the unique traits that would set it apart from a close look-alike, hillside blueberry (V. pallidum).

None of the places visited that day yielded the species, and we were becoming discouraged. While hiking near Tuckerman’s Ravine, momentary excitement faded when the blueberries discovered turned out to be V. pallidum. Just when we decided to give up, a blueberry bush matching the exact description for V. augustifolium caught Natalie’s eye, and at the last moment our trip became a complete success thanks to Natalie’s perseverance and keen observation. This individual of V. angustifolium is growing in the greenhouse now and within a few years will find a home in the Arboretum landscape.

Modern-day plant collecting presents a unique opportunity to explore and document the flora of the world, to obtain data and germplasm that will assist science and conservation efforts in our rapidly changing environment. I am grateful to have participated, and in doing so contribute stories and specimens to the Arnold’s legacy as well as to science. It has been inspiring to learn of the women who came before me, and I look forward to hearing the stories and seeing the plants from the women who will come next.

Additional Resources

Susan Delano McKelvey

Dr. Shiu-Ying Hu

Susan Kelley

Natalie Buckley-Medrano and Jenna Zukswert

Expeditions Unveiled
The Gendered History of the Arnold Arboretum

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