Kunso Kim and his Adventures in the Qinling Mountains
He's as good with a GPS system as he is with a machete. Pursuing his treasure, he'll muscle through a mudslide along a dizzyingly steep mountainside, then scale a 30-foot tree...overlooking a 300-foot bluff. Meet Kunso Kim, Head of Collections & Curator, and the Arboretum's modern-day Indiana Jones.
His mission? To gather the seeds of rare and endangered trees growing in the wild. His vital work ensures that these trees have a chance at survival.
This fall, Kim traveled to the Qinling Mountains in northwest China as part of an international team of plant scientists from the North American China Plant Exploration Consortium (NACPEC). The area is known for its diversity of plants that are also hardy to our region. But plant life there is threatened by land development, climate change, and other forces.
"We collected species that are facing extinction," said Kim. "And we had other goals as well. We collected garden worthy plant species and plants with a specific breeding purpose we don't already have in our collections. And, we gathered others to broaden the genetic diversity of our collections." Why? If the worst happens, and a species disappears from the wild, breeding a range of genetically distinct plants can produce a successful new population. By contrast, the "Noah's Ark" two-by-two strategy will produce weak, inbred results.
To broaden the genetic diversity of species, the team collected 78 seed samples representing 57 different species. Among the team's prized discoveries was Miaotai Miyabe's maple (Acer miyabei ssp. miaotaiense), which is ranked "vulnerable" by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It's a cousin of Miyabe maple, with corky barked branches. Sinowilsonia henryi is an unusual witch hazel relative. And Fraxinus baroniana, an ash tree known for its refined, narrow leaves and beautiful purple fall color, is one of the rarest Chinese ashes. It could be a key to breeding EAB-resistant ashes we can plant here in Northern Illinois.
"Fraxinus baroniana was elusive for many years," said Kim. "Many previous expeditions couldn't find it, but we did! We found it growing along the bank of Jia Ling Jiang River. We were driving along, and one of our team, who has an amazingly keen eye, stopped the car and we saw it right there!"
The team also discovered Lace bark pine (Pinus bungeana), another IUCN Red List tree, growing on top of stunning Wheatstack Mountain. Buddhist monks carved 200 grottoes and 7,000 statues into the sandstone.
But the highlight came in the last week of the trip, when the team found the elusive Magnolia biondii, a narrow-leaved cousin to Star magnolia.
The Moment of Discovery
"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."
After a round of high fives and celebration, the team rolled up their sleeves. They collected samples of leaves, fruits and stems to send to our Herbarium. They documented the species, the plant community growing around it, soil conditions, the slope of the land, and the GPS coordinates. They loaded this data along with photos onto Google Earth.
While their expedition is over, now the important work begins. The team will divide the seeds among the consortium member institutions that will steward these precious treasures for future generations to enjoy.
"Our Chinese counterparts are equal partners. We are actively nurturing these kinds of collaborations. They make the whole effort successful," said Kim.
Tellabs Foundation, North American China Plant Exploration Consortium (NACPEC), and individual donors provided generous support for this important China Tree Collaboration Conservation program.