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July 2018: History of the China Collection at The Morton Arboretum

China Collection at The Morton Arboretum

The China Collection at The Morton Arboretum began in 1925 with Arboretum botanist, Henry Teuscher. Many trees, shrubs and plants from China flourish in the Chicagoland area due to the similarities in their climates. The Quercus aliena (oriental white oak) is one of those trees, and can be found in the Arboretum’s China collection. According to BRAHMS, many of the oriental white oaks on the Arboretum’s grounds were acquired through the North America-China Plant Exploration (NACPEC) 2002 in Shanxi, China.

A tree with a short trunk, but long branches with many green leaves.


The Morton Family’s history with China began in 1916. While Joy Morton served a Director of the Continental and Commercial Trust and Savings Bank in Chicago, Illinois, the bank loaned the Republic of China $5 million to assist them in rebuilding their governmental administration. This loan was highly criticized by the European financial community because of the chaos of World War I, and China's precarious government situation. Shortly after the loan in March 1917, Joy Morton in the company of his wife, Margaret Gray Morton, son, Sterling Morton, Sterling’s wife, Preston Owsley Morton, and O.D. Walker arrived in China. During the month the family was in China, Joy and Sterling spent much of their time talking with bankers, government officials, and businessmen. Joy even had the opportunity to discuss reforestation with Chinese president, Li Yuan-hung.

The Morton’s relationship with China continued even after their initial month long trip. In 1930, Joy Morton made a donation to the Peking Museum to repair one of the corner towers of the Forbidden City,  Ching Jên Kung. Below is a painting of Ching Jên Kung that once hung in Joy Morton’s office and is now housed as part of the Special Collections in The Sterling Morton Library.

A red building with blue and the top and a yellowish-brown roof. It is a building from the Forbidden City in China.

However, the Mortons were not the first American arborists to venture to China. Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Frank Meyer, Ernest H. Wilson, David Fairchild, and Charles Sprague Sargent, The Morton Arboretum and other botanical institutions across America were able to acquire seeds and other specimens from China. Following in the footsteps of these early scientists, Morton Arboretum scientists have traveled to China for scientific expeditions and plant hunting. Additionally, The Morton Arboretum has participated in seed exchange programs that have initiated the growth dozens of Chinese species on the Arboretum grounds.

In the photograph below, Arboretum scientists Nicole Cavender and Murphy Westwood meet with researchers from Peking University to see newly established forest research plots at the Pingwu Wanglang Nature Reserve in China.


A group of adult men and women standing in the snow in a forest in front of a sign that is written in Chinese.

If you would like to learn more about Arboretum staff members’ trips to China, there are several resources available on ACORN, the Arboretum’s online collections repository:

A Brief Summary of the Arboretum’s Expedition to China by Ross C. Clark

Joy Morton and the Forbidden City: A Mystery Solved? By Carol Doty

The Arboretum’s China Expedition: Implications for the Collections by Peter J. Van der Linden
Research Notes
Peking: The Search Continues by George Ware

ACORN also hosts a variety of resources that demonstrate the impact that China has had on the collections at the Arboretum:
Peking Lilac (Syringa pekinensis) by Kris Bachtell
Remarkable Deciduous Trees of The Morton Arboretum: East Side of the Arboretum by Lowell E. Kammerer
A Remarkable Plant by Carol Doty
A Sketch of the Sweetgums by George Ware
Living Footnotes in a Garden by Viola Sobolik
Immigrant Plants by Marion T. Hall
Rhododendron Culture at the Morton Arboretum by Charles A. Lewis
The Ginkgo: History of a Unique Tree by Viola Sobolik
Lacebark Pine (Pinus bungeana) by Kris Bachtell
A Rose By Any Other Name… by Peter J. Van der Linden
Hardy Kiwi Vine (Actinidia kolomikta) by Edward A. Hedborn, Jr.
Ginkgo (Maidenhair Tree), Ginkgo biloba by Richard G. Hootman

From Friday August 3 to Sunday, August 5, The Morton Arboretum will host its annual Destination Asia Festival! Join us at the Sterling Morton Library on Saturday, August 4 from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for Troll origami!