206. Chinese Fringetree

Chinese Fringetree

Chionanthus retusus

Accession 13051*A

This Chinese fringetree is widely regarded as one of the Arboretum’s showstoppers. In spring, the tree puts on a dramatic display, growing hundreds of cascades of white, four-petaled flowers. In summer, the oblong, green leaves remain on the tree. In fall, the leaves turn yellow, and the tree grows blue-purple fruit. In winter, the vase-shaped architecture of the tree’s branches comes into view.  

Learn about the planning and collaboration necessary for a successful collecting trip.

Manager of Plant Records Kyle Port has collected plants for the Arboretum across the country. Hear him talk about what he enjoys most—and finds most challenging—about plant collecting.


Segment 1:

The seed for this tree arrived at the Arboretum in 1901, sent from the Imperial Botanic Garden in Tokyo, Japan. This type of institutional partnership is crucial to worldwide conservation efforts and botanical exchange, and has only increased in the past century. Today, the Arboretum strives to collect species from the wild, and Arboretum staff work closely with colleagues on the ground throughout the collection process.  


The first step in a collecting trip is planning. Working with local botanical experts at universities and forest service agencies, Arboretum staff research the region to identify target plants and determine when they are most likely to have viable seeds. The collaborators create an itinerary of target plants, collection sites, and lodging.  


On an expedition, the collectors collect three things: first, the actual plant collections—the seeds, cuttings, and seedlings that will be shipped back to the home institutions. Equally important are the records that are kept—careful notation of a collected plants condition, location, and surrounding environment. Last, the collectors create herbarium vouchers—pressed and dried samples of each plant they collect that are permanently housed in an herbarium archive.  


At the end of a long day in the field, the team has more work ahead of them. Back at the hotel, they must sort through the day’s collections to prepare them for shipping. Different seeds require different treatments. Some need to be cleaned and dried, while some need to be packed in sphagnum moss to retain moisture. Herbarium vouchers are transferred to large wooden presses for safekeeping. All of the photographs and data that were collected are entered into a computer.  


The hallmark of successful plant collecting is careful, thorough notation, from planning a precise itinerary to painstakingly labeling each collection. Its impossible to anticipate all of the bumps in the road—every plant collecting expedition has surprises and setbacks. But with the right amount of planning and the right partners, plenty of new seeds make their way to the Arboretum, and out into our landscape.  


Segment 2:

My name is Kyle Port, and I’m the Manager of Plant Records. 


I’ve been on three collecting trips for the Arnold Arboretum. The first was in 2015 to northern Idaho, and our target list included really charismatic, common western species that do not grow or are underrepresented here in the living collections. In 2017, my second collecting trip for the Arnold Arboretum, I went to Wisconsin with our manager of plant production, Tiffany Enzenbacher, and again, we were looking for charismatic, Midwest species that were underrepresented here or that we didn’t have represented in the collections. My third trip for the Arnold Arboretum was in 2018, going back to the Pacific Northwest, specifically in southern Oregon. We started in southern Oregon and moved our way up into central Washington, into the Cascade Mountains. Again, looking for common species to grow here at the Arnold Arboretum.  


What I enjoy most about plant collecting is the satisfaction of seeing the seeds that we collect germinate in our greenhouses. I also like the excitement of the hunt. Being in these habitats far away from home, having our logistic plans sorted, and just setting out on a trail to look for seed.  


I really enjoy trying to find these plants in the wild. I enjoy being in the habitats in which they grow. Here at the Arboretum, it’s such a prescribed landscape. We’ve domesticated these iconic trees. I learn more about the associations of how these plants grow in the wild. I’m fascinated by the associations these plants have with other plants, other animals. 


One of the biggest challenges in plant collecting is how rigorous it is. You’re starting at daylight. You’re ending way past sunset, and you’re working hard to find these plants and process the plants, get them ready for shipment, working through your photographs, writing blogs, so the long hours can be very challenging. 


I think what surprises people about plant collecting is that we’re actually doing it, is that we’re going into these natural populations, collecting them… And I think the other thing that is surprising is how long it takes to coax those seeds to germinate. And the length of time it takes for those seedlings to be large enough to grow on the grounds of the Arboretum. So it can take up to five to 10 years for a seed grown plant to move its way into the permanent collection. So, it’s a huge investment that we’re making in bringing these plants here. 

Tap here to read transcripts.