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European botanists who first conducted botanical expeditions in China more than 200 years ago were fascinated by the diversity, usefulness, and beauty of Chinese plants. This deep interest in the Chinese flora continues to the present not only because China has about 31,500 species of vascular plants or about one-eighth of the world's flora, but also because China has numerous species of food crops on which the survival of more than 1.3 billion Chinese people depends, as well as several thousand species of plants that are ornamental or important sources of medicine, oil, waxes, fibers, timber, aromatics, and other natural products. It is estimated that more than 5,000 species of plants are used regularly as sources of medicine in China. The population of China has nearly tripled within half a century, and because of the continued extensive land use, deforestation, and destruction of natural habitats, more than 3,000 species of plants are endangered and many are threatened with extinction.
The flora of China is the most diverse in the North Temperate Zone and is one of the richest in the world. It includes some 7,500 species of trees and shrubs. China is the only country in the world that includes unbroken transitional zones connecting tropical, subtropical, temperate, and boreal forests. Some genera of vascular plants (e.g., Metasequoia, Ginkgo, Cercidiphyllum), which are known only as fossils in Europe and North America, have survived in China. Therefore, knowledge of the flora of China is essential for interpreting the fossil record and understanding the vegetational history of North America, Europe, and elsewhere in Asia, for protecting the plants adequately, for utilizing them well economically, and simply for learning the properties of a significant fraction of the world's plants.
The botanical exploration of China by western botanists has a long history that dates back to the very early 18th century. The most significant collections were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by collectors such as J. M. Delavey, G. Forrest, F. H. v. Handel-Mazzetti, A. Henry, V. L. Komarov, G. N. Potanin, J. Rock, H. Smith, and E. H. Wilson. Intensive collecting by Chinese botanists started in the 1920s and continues to the present. The most notable among the early collectors are Cheng Wan-chun, Fang Wen-pei, Ching Ren-Chang, and Yü Te-tsun. Although a few of the earlier western botanists wrote some catalogs and incomplete floras of China, it was not until about the middle of the 20th century that Chinese botanists began to publish treatments for a national flora, Flora Reipublicae Popularis Sinicae (FRPS). The first account, volume 2, published in 1959, dealt with several fern families. Only two additional accounts were completed in the following 15 years, but beginning in 1977 other volumes of FRPS were published on a regular basis, and completed in 2004.
In 1975, Peter H. Raven (MO), then president of the Botanical Society of America, began negotiations with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to promote botanical interactions and exchanges of visits between botanists of China and the United States. In 1979 a Chinese delegation visited the United States, and in the joint conference with U.S. botanists at the University of California, Berkeley, it was proposed to produce an English-language flora of China mainly because FRPS is written in Chinese and is not readily accessible to most foreign readers. It was also suggested that such a flora would involve the collaboration of Chinese taxonomists and their colleagues from the United States and elsewhere. Over the following eight years Raven pursued this proposal on his visits to China and through correspondence with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Botany in Beijing, and the editorial committee of FRPS.
During the 1987 International Botanical Congress in Berlin, Peter H. Raven was informed by Wu Zheng-yi, director emeritus of the Kunming Institute of Botany and chairman of FRPS, that the Chinese Academy of Sciences had agreed to produce an abbreviated, updated, revised flora in English. In the summer of 1988, Wu and Raven became co-chairs of the Flora of China (FC). They appointed a joint Sino-American editorial committee of four American: Bruce Bartholomew, David E. Boufford, Nancy R. Morin, and William Tai and six Chinese botanists: Chen Shou-liang, Chen Sing-chi, Cui Hong-bin, and Dai Lun-kai. A formal agreement was signed by Wu and Raven under Metasequoia glyptostroboides on 7 October 1988 during the first meeting of the joint committee held at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Later the following joined the editorial committee: Yang Qiner, Huang Cheng-chiu, and Li Xi-wen. In 2004, the following were introduced as new members: Li Dezhu, Xia Bing, Zhang Xianchun, and Chen Shilong.
The joint editorial committee added additional members: Ihsan Al-Shehbaz (MO), Anthony R. Brach (MO, A, GH), Paul But (Hong Kong), Michael G. Gilbert (MO at K), Hong De-yuan (PE), Hu Chi-ming (IBSC), David S. Ingram succeeded by Mark F. Watson (E), Joël Jérémie (P), Simon Owens succeeded by David A. Simpson (K), Larry Skog succeeded by W. John Kress (US), Nicholas J. Turland (MO, now at B), Zhu Guanghua succeeded by A. Michele Funston and by Zhang Libing (MO), and Tetsuo Koyama (MBK). and held meetings in Guangzhou, China (1989), Cambridge, Massachusetts (1990), Kunming, China (1992), Nikko, Japan (1993), Nanjing, China (1994), Edinburgh, U.K. (1995), Kunming, China (1996, 2001, 2004), Taichung, Taiwan (1997), and St. Louis, USA (1999). Four data-entry/word-processing centers have been established at the botanical institutes in Beijing, Guangzhou, Kunming, and Nanjing, and seven editorial centers have been created at the Missouri Botanical Garden, the California Academy of Sciences, Harvard University Herbaria, the Smithsonian Institution, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (Paris). The Missouri Botanical Garden is the coordinating and managerial center of the Flora.
Volumes of the Flora of China were sent for review to regional advisors so that it will be in line with floras of the neighboring countries. Eona M.M. Aitken (Edinburgh, now retired), Mark Hughes (Edinburgh, Scotland), Jin Murata (Japan), W.J.J.O. de Wilde (Netherlands), Kai Larsen (Denmark), Rudolf Kamelin (St. Petersburg, Russia), Sigizmund S. Kharkevich (Vladivostok, Russia), Alexei Skvortsov (Moscow, Russia), and Peng Ching-I (Taipei, China) are the project's regional advisors. Whenever possible, family editors and authors of the Flora of North America will also contribute to the review process.
Although resembling FRPS in family arrangement, the Flora of China is an entirely new work. Treatments of the Flora are based on revisions resulting from the international collaboration between Chinese botanists and their colleagues from other parts of the world. Unlike those of FRPS, however, the Flora of China treatments are abbreviated and condensed, and a companion set of volumes of illustrations is being prepared.
The Flora of China received unprecedented support from the international botanical community. The project offers unique opportunities for collaboration among hundreds of Chinese and non-Chinese botanists, especially from the United States, Canada, Europe, Russia, Australia, and Japan, and it marks a new stage in the promotion of international botanical interchange. These opportunities for scientific collaboration will promote cooperative scientific research for generations. We are very grateful, and indeed much indebted, to all botanists involved and to persons and foundations providing financial support for the project.
Support has been provided by grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Starr Foundation, Fondation Franklinia, and the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust.