Penn’s Morris
Arboretum owes
much of its botanical diversity to the work
of plant hunters,
whose pursuits
(fortunately) are a
little less dangerous
today than they were
a century ago.



By climbing a Tetracentron tree growing on the edge of a cliff … I manage to take some snapshots of the upper part of the Davidia tree in full flower. The wood is brittle, and the knowledge of this does not add to one’s peace of mind when sitting astride a branch … with a sheer drop of a couple hundred feet beneath. However, all went well and we drank in the beauties of the extraordinary tree.E.H. Wilson, China—Mother of Gardens (1929)

It was the quest for Camellia japonica that stuck Dr. Paul Meyer on a Korean navy boat for five hours with a mind-altering case of seasickness. “I was sure I was going to die,” recalls the F. Otto Haas Director of the Morris Arboretum with a cheerfulness best summoned on dry land two decades later. The hardy, red-flowering shrubs grew on some islands that belonged to South Korea but were located above the 38th parallel, off North Korea’s coast. Due to the military sensitivity of their mission, Meyer, three other American plant explorers, and their interpreter were kept in stuffy quarters below deck as the boat lurched toward its destination.

“I was lying in bed after bouts of vomiting, almost having nightmares, and I’d think, ‘Oh, we’re almost there,’” Meyer recalls. “Then I’d look up and only 10 minutes had passed.”

A lot of trouble, some might say, for a handful of seeds.

Meyer at least was in good company. Ernest H. Wilson survived an avalanche in the 1910s to bring home the regal lily from western China. Frank Meyer (no relation to Paul) fended off a traveling gang of robbers near Feicheng to obtain scions of the succulent pound peach. Civil war, louse-ridden beds, and cholera were but a few of the obstacles that confronted Western plant hunters of an earlier generation.

Today, the Penn-owned Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill is home to some 13,000 plants of 2,500 varieties from 29 countries (including healthy specimens of Japanese camellia and a stately Engler beech that Wilson likely collected). It owes its varied inventory to plant exchanges and collecting trips that began in the late 19th century, when the arboretum was a privately owned garden. American nurseries, home gardens, and urban streetscapes benefit from the genetic diversity brought back with these botanic souvenirs. To give a few examples:

Freeze-trials of dogwoods from Korea, China, and Japan may lead to the introduction of a variety that can survive in areas as far north as Chicago.

A Korean goldenrain tree that now grows in the arboretum’s parking lot is being studied, along with others, by a Cornell scientist to see how it holds up to multiple urban stresses, including deicing salt, heat, and poor soil.

The arboretum is working with Penn’s Center for Technology Transfer to patent an Hinoki false cypress collected at a Buddhist temple in Korea. Actually native to Japan, the species may represent an alternative to our native Canada hemlock, which has been devastated by insects.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04

The Global Garden
By Susan Frith
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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