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China's plant life is enormously rich. Some 31,000 plant species are native to China, representing nearly one-eighth of the world's total plant species, including thousands found nowhere else on Earth. By comparison, the United States and Canada combined contain about 20,000 native plant species.
China is the only country on Earth where there are unbroken connections among tropical, subtropical, temperate, and boreal forests.
This unbroken connection has led to the formation of rich plant associations rarely seen elsewhere in the world. Many genera of plants which are known only from fossil records in North America and Europe are represented in China by living members. China also has the most diverse flora of any country in the North Temperate zone.
Similarities between the plants of China and North America
Mainland China and the continental United States share a common latitude and similar-sized land areas. The climates in much of the two regions are also similar, especially in the eastern halves. Many plant species that were once widespread throughout the entire northern hemisphere were wiped out by glaciation in North America but survived in China. Nearly 120 genera in 60 families of plants have disjunct populations in eastern Asia and temperate North America, relicts of the once widespread flora.
Knowledge of the Chinese flora is essential to understand floristic composition and interpret the fossil records of Europe, North America, and temperate Asia.
Many genera (e.g., Ginkgo, Metasequoia, Pseudolarix, Cercidiphyllum) which are known only from fossil records in North America and Europe, are extant in China. Metasequoia is one of the best known examples of taxa that were once widespread but now have very limited distributions. This genus was first known only from fossil remains and was thought to be Sequoia. In 1948, soon after botanists recognized it as a new genus (Metasequoia), a stand of living trees was discovered in central China. This genus, which once covered Asia, Europe, and North America, is now represented in the wild by only about 5,000 individuals in China. Cultivated trees outside of China have been grown from seeds sent to the West in 1947, including some given to and flourishing at the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. They are elegant reminders of the past shared by the floras of Asia, Europe, and North America.
The use of plants by the Chinese
Throughout their centuries-old tradition, the Chinese discovered and adapted native plant resources for use as food, spices, and medicine. Several thousand species of Chinese plants are now cultivated throughout the world, including short-grain rice, tea, soybeans, oranges, cucumber, lemons, peaches, apricots, ginger, anise, and ginseng. Hundreds of Chinese species (e.g., rhododendrons, magnolias, camellias, viburnums, gardenias, jasmines, forsythias and primroses) are cultivated as ornamentals worldwide. The Flora of China will provide a ready means of understanding, locating, and using these plants.
Nearly 5,000 species of plants are used for medicine in China today, a fact that is of increasing interest to western medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies. Two examples: first, Trichosanthes kirilowii, a member of the gourd family found only in China, is being studied by medical researchers for its strong activity against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Second, the Chinese populations of Artemisia annua, which is a member of the sunflower family, show great promise against drug-resistant Plasmodium falciparum malaria. Some 250 million people around the world contract malaria each year. Only the drug derived from Artemisia annua appears to be effective against all strains of the malaria parasite.
The Flora of China will contribute to species conservation.
About 10,000 species of vascular plants are endemic to China, of which some 3,000 are in danger of extinction. With the extensive destruction of their native habitats, it is certain that many Chinese species have already become extinct. Because China is the native homeland for approximately 12% of the world's flora, the preservation of its species is of special significance. The Flora of China provides the information needed to facilitate the collaboration of international conservation organizations, especially those dealing with programs on forest restoration and resource management.
Cataloging the plants of China
The task of assembling information about these plants is both vital and formidable. Thirty-five years ago Chinese scientists began the enormous task of cataloging the vast wealth of knowledge about their native plants. This 80-volume, 125-book Chinese-language undertaking was completed in 2004. The Flora holds tremendous potential for those wishing to study the medical value of a given species or for searching the relatives of commercially valuable plants that are more resistant to disease or drought.
An updated English account of this Flora, the Flora of China, will open this storehouse of knowledge to botanists all the world over.
The Flora of China Project is improving access to Chinese plants by botanists in the West.
Before the Flora of China project, loans of specimens, especially types, from Chinese herbaria were not possible. Scientists in the West are now able to receive specimens, including types from Chinese herbaria. As a scientific exchange, Missouri Botanical Garden is acquiring from China about 800,000 specimens, including 100,000 collected in the 1930s from habitats that were later destroyed. Furthermore, 1995 marks the first time that highly threatened Chinese plants, like the conifer Cathaya argyrophylla, are being introduced to the West.