November 1, 2012
A visit to the Arboretum’s Asian Collections on the East Side can be a bit like a trip around the world. It’s eye-opening to realize how many of our familiar garden plants, including forsythia, tree peonies and rhododendrons, evolved in China, Japan, and Korea.
But how did they get here? Many first travelled as seeds and cuttings collected by intrepid plant hunters who, since the 18th century, have been climbing mountains and hacking their way through jungles in search of species that might thrive in similar climates far away. And they’re still at it.
Consider Kunso Kim, head of collections and curator at The Morton Arboretum, who has been called “a modern-day Indiana Jones.”
Kim travels the world to gather the seeds of rare and endangered trees growing in the wild. His explorations have led him to Korea, the remote jungles of China, England, and the Appalachian and Ozark mountains.
He's as good with a GPS system as he is with a machete. Pursuing his treasures, Kim will muscle through a mudslide along a dizzyingly steep mountainside and then scale a 30-foot tree overlooking a 300-foot bluff.
True, Kim has not been thrown into a pit of venomous snakes, but he’s climbed the Qinling Mountains in northwest China and scaled the sides of the Jia Ling Jiang River.
"We collected species that are facing extinction," says Kim.
One of his most spectacular discoveries was a lacebark pine growing on top of stunning Wheatstack Mountain, where Buddhist monks had carved 200 grottoes and 7,000 statues into the sandstone.
"That moment of discovery is hard to describe," said Kim. "You're talking about the possibility every day with the team. And you're dreaming about it at night. And once you find it, it's an indescribable feeling! It's why we keep going back."