An Account of the 1980 Sino-American Expedition


In plantSciences, The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Newsletter/Summer 1981, Volume 1: Number 3


Last August [1980] the Arnold Arboretum's long-time association with China was renewed as Dr. Stephen A. Spongberg, Horticultural Taxonomist at the Arnold Arboretum, participated in the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition to Western Hubei Province.


Sponsored jointly by the Chinese Academia Sinica and the Botanical Society of America, the expedition represented a breakthrough in Chinese-American relations. It was the first joint field expedition in China that involved scientists from a non-Communist country since the establishment of the People's Republic in 1948. Additionally, for the Arnold Arboretum, it provided an opportunity for the restoration of contacts at Chinese botanical institutions and a revival of field studies in mainland China.


Spongberg and his colleagues received financial support for travel to and from China and for expedition equipment and film from the National Geographic Society and members of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta. In addition to Spongberg, the American team consisted of Drs. Bruce Bartholomew of the Botanical Garden, University of California, Berkeley [now at CAS]; David Boufford of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh [now at A, GH]; T. R. Dudley of the U. S. National Arboretum, Washington, D.C.; and James Luteyn of the New York Botanical Garden. The American team flew from San Francisco on August 13, 1980, arriving in Peking [Beijing] on August 15. Before heading to Wuhan in Hubei (Hupeh) Province, discussions were held at the Institute of Botany, Academia Sinica, in Peking, where time was also spent consulting specimens in the extensive herbarium. The Institute of Botany in Peking and the Wuhan Institute of Botany, Academia Sinica, served as host institutions for the expedition, and together with local officials in Hubei Province made arrangements for field work and logistic support. While in China, the members of the American team were the guests of the Academia Sinica.


In Wuhan, further discussions were held at the Wuhan Institute of Botany, and final preparations were made for the three day trip by jeep to the Shennongjia Forest District in western Hubei Province where the field work was to be undertaken. While the field party consisted primarily of staff from the Wuhan Institute, two Chinese botanists from Peking and one each from the Jiangsu Institute of Botany in Nanking [Nanjing] and the Kunming Institute of Botany, Academia Sinica, also participated.


The Shennongjia Forest District, located at the western terminus of the Daba mountain range on the Szechuan border north of the Yangtze River, comprises 1,236 square miles of steep rugged mountains and elevations that range from 2,000 to 11,000 feet. The extreme topographic relief coupled with the elevational range provides habitats for an incredibly diverse flora and climatic conditions that extend from warm temperate through boreal.


The botanists on the expedition attempted to sample the flora as completely as possible, making collections of herbaceous and woody plants as well as of lower, non-vascular plant groups. Spongberg, however, was particularly anxious to collect seeds of potential woody ornamentals, although the team also concentrated on herbaceous species, which are generally less well known and are poorly represented in western herbaria.


Once work was completed in the Shennongjia region, the expedition members traveled by jeep to I'chang on the Yangtze River where they had a day of relaxation and participated in the celebrations of the national holiday on October 1. On October 2 the party left I'chang on a river boat and headed up the Yangtze through the famous three gorges and into Szechuan Province, where they docked at Wanhsien on October 4. From Wanhsien the expedition traveled by jeep to Lichuan in western Hubei Province: en route they stopped at Mo-tau-chi where they saw the "type" tree of the dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. It was from this tree that the first specimens of this species were collected in the early 1940's as well as those on which the species was based and described as new to science.


While based in Lichuan the party traveled to the Metasequoia Valley, Shui-sa-pa, where in 1947 the dawn redwood was found forming an extensive, naturally producing population. Moreover, botanical activities in this region by Chinese and American scientists in 1947 and 1948 generated the herbarium specimens on which retired Arnold Arboretum Botanist Dr. Shiu Ying Hu based her study, "The Metasequoia Flora and its Phytogeographic Significance", published in the Journal of the Arnold Arboretum in January of 1980. Because of the botanical significance of this locality, as well as the historical connections of the Arnold Arboretum with the introduction of Metasequoia into cultivation, the brief, three-day sojourn to Shui-sa-pa was a high point of the expedition's field activities.


Despite the Arboretum's long association with Metasequoia, Spongberg was the first Arnold Arboretum staff member to visit the region where the tree is native.


October 15 found the expedition back in Wuhan, where several days were spent packing the 2,085 collections for shipment. All told, 25,000 herbarium sheets had been processed and over 500 collections of seeds and other propagules had been made during the expedition's six weeks of fieldwork. All the collections were divided equally between the Chinese and American teams, and sets have been deposited in the herbaria of all the institutions represented by the participants.


The final three weeks of the trip were spent traveling by boat, train, plane, and jeep, visiting a number of botanical and horticultural institutions. A day was also spent touring Souchow, China's famed "Garden City" in Jiangsu Province before the American team returned to Peking for its departure for the United States on November 15.


While many of the seed lots that the American team brought back are currently being stratified, the germination rate of those which have been sown at the Arboretum has been high. Included among these seed lots are seeds of a possibly new and very ornamental Malus, as well as of many other species of outstanding ornamental value.


The scientific results of the expedition are being prepared collaboratively by the American and Chinese participants and will be published in the Journal of the Arnold Arboretum. In addition, four of the five Chinese botanists who accompanied the American botanists will be hosted in the United States beginning this fall. As a result of their return visit, they will participate in a field trip through New England and the southeastern United States. For this exchange the Arnold Arboretum will be honored and pleased to host Professor Cheng Chung, of the Wuhan Institute of Botany, who is particularly anxious to continue his studies of the flora of Hubei Province in our herbaria and library.