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US National Arboretum


Searching the Globe for Better Plants

Image of Chinling Mts Gansu Province China

Few gardeners can say they are at a loss for new plant material. The vast array of trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals is enough to make your head spin. With a click of the mouse on the Internet or a casual flip through a catalog, a gardener can be anywhere in the botanical world and back again within seconds: camellias from Japan; boxwood from the Republic of Georgia; geraniums from South Africa; or magnolias from South Carolina. The list is endless and will remain so as long as there are diehard plant enthusiasts among us.

Image of a NACPEC Expedition Member
So, what about all of those fabulous plants? Most of the time, we just hoist them on the counter at the checkout stand and then go on our merry way, not even knowing where in the world they come from. How do they get into the horticultural marketplace anyway? Through a catalog? A nursery? Well, yes…but long before they reach that point, plant collectors at places like the U.S. National Arboretum have already been hard at work. The Arboretum is one of many institutions whose goal is to bring wonderful plants to you, the gardening public, through its horticultural research and education. Though you may never see them or hear their names, our researchers and horticulturists actively seek out superior plants to support that goal. Their story is rarely told, but is critical to the National Arboretum’s mission.

Image of NACPEC Expedition Participants

Recently, the National Arboretum partnered with the Beijing Botanical Garden, the Morris Arboretum, and the Morton Arboretum in an expedition to the Gansu Province of the People’s Republic of China as part of the North America/China Plant Exploration Consortium (NACPEC). Expeditions like this allow horticulturists and botanists to obtain new plant material, such as seeds, fruit, or cuttings of a given specimen, for breeding consideration; to seek out material we already know exists that has more superior qualities useful in established breeding programs (e.g., disease resistance, better blooms); to shore up the genetic diversity of plant material in various countries; and to develop relationships with other nations through shared research interests.

Image of Prunus Dream Catcher flowers
The Arboretum has already used plant material from other collecting trips to develop superior landscape plants including crape myrtles, flowering cherries, petunias, and chile peppers. These are just a few of the plant groups that have changed the face of gardening in the United States with many more to come. Much of this work would be impossible were it not for the dedicated horticulturists and scientists trekking the globe in search of great plants.

Other collecting trips have had the satisfaction of serving double duty: By including plants facing serious environmental threats into their research efforts, Arboretum scientists are not only helping prevent species loss in the wild but are developing great ornamental landscape plants, too. For example, Arboretum researchers have saved an endangered mid-Atlantic native, box huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycera, from possible extinction in Maryland as a result of a domestic expedition. Now, the plant is being reintroduced into the wild with the help of local school children. The same researchers who helped save Image of Box Huckleberry Flowers Maryland’s box huckleberry population also think it would make a great ornamental, evergreen groundcover. So, they are doing breeding research on box huckleberries from different areas in the mid-Atlantic region, hoping to add it to the palette of nursery plants available to the public.

Of course, for the Arboretum, responsible collecting is a priority—collecting plant material without going through the proper channels of authority is just not done. When a particular plant has caught a collector’s eye, it must be well-documented. A herbarium specimen is prepared, GPS locations are recorded, and environmental conditions are noted. Additionally, collecting is subject to various local, national, and/or international regulations. Though collecting can be a fascinating adventure, the reality is that it takes a lot of hard work and commitment to reap valuable rewards. Material collected during the Arboretum’s recent expeditions, for example, may not yield useful results in breeding programs for decades!

Perhaps the next time you go on a search through a catalog or nursery, the plants you see will no longer be just pretty things to liven up your yard. Instead, they will be reminders of the dedicated men and women—like those at the National Arboretum—who have searched the globe to bring you better plants for your garden.

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Last Updated   March 17, 2006 3:21 PM
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