A Love For China

An Academy botanist travels halfway around the world to construct a picture of China's plants.

During the mid-60s to mid-70s, the government of China was too busy with its own internal struggles to let outsiders across its borders. But as the Cultural Revolution drew to its end in 1976 and China started opening its doors to the international community, Academy botanist Bruce Bartholomew was among the earliest scientists to walk in.

Bartholomew was part of the Botanical Society of America's first delegation to visit China in 1978 to help reestablish professional contacts between botanical institutions in the two countries. Since then, he's been back more than 20 times and has collected plants from the lush forests of Yunnan province to the desert-like habitats of Xinjiang.

Although Bartholomew oversees the Academy's enormous botanical collection, which holds some 1.8 million specimens, his main professional passion is to help complete the Flora of China, a 25-volume work that describes about 30,000 species of China's ferns, gymnosperms, and flowering plants. While the Academy is one of three main editorial centers for this project, the endeavor is a collaboration of botanical institutions from the U.S., China, France, and Great Britain and individual botanists from around the world.

Currently eight volumes into the project, the complete series will be the first treatment of China's flora in the English language.


Bruce Bartholomew looking at a specimen of Gaoligongshania, a genus of bamboo endemic to the region, in northwestern Yunnan, China.
Photo: Dong Lin

Bruce Bartholomew crossing a suspension bridge at Qigi in the Gaoligongshan region of northwestern Yunnan, China. Photo: Dong Lin