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The Indiana Jones of Exotic Plants

The Indiana Jones of Exotic Plants
David Boufford ’73 packs his KSC biology degree
when he explores China’s Hengduan Mountains.

Photo courtesy David Bouford

The third floor of the Harvard University Herbaria houses a large space packed to the rafters with tall metal cabinets filled with well-documented, dried plant specimens from all over the world, some specimens dating as far back as the 1700s. This is where David Boufford '73, senior research scientist, works. His office is a comfortable, unpretentious space with large windows overlooking the north end of the Harvard campus, and his shelves are filled with books about plants, some of which he has edited himself. Boufford reaches for a piece of azurite he found while doing fieldwork in Xizang (Tibet) and places it on a work table for a visitor to examine.

'Being a student and working in North Carolina made me aware that some plants in eastern North America had their closest relatives in eastern Asia and not in western North America or Europe.'
A native of Keene, Boufford attended Keene High School and then graduated from Keene State with a bachelor's degree in biology. In the 1970s, he collected and dried plants that began Keene State's own herbarium – one of only five in the state. He says that his real interest was initially in insects, but his studies ended up taking him in a different direction. "Plants are easier because they can't run away from you," he notes.

He cites David Gregory, the late Dr. Edmund Gianferrari (biology), Harold Goder (biology), Thomas Neil (organic chemistry), Peter Batchelder (German), and Stephen Stepunuck (chemistry) as especially supportive, helpful, and inspiring professors during his time at Keene State. Boufford says Professor Gregory was the most directly influential on him and his life's work. At Keene State, Boufford says, "I was given the freedom and support to develop in my own direction."

His own direction eventually proved to be the Hengduan Mountains and adjacent areas of southwestern China, Japan, Taiwan, and the Himalayan region.

After graduating in 1973, he traveled around the United States from May through August to become familiar with the flora and vegetation of the country. He entered graduate school at the University of North Carolina for a couple of years, then enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Washington University in St. Louis and did research at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Photo courtesy David Bouford

Boufford collects plants and minerals in China (above), records specimen data in the field, and brings them back to Harvard for study and classification (below).
Photos by Shawna-Lee I. Perrin

"Being a student and working in North Carolina made me aware that some plants in eastern North America had their closest relatives in eastern Asia and not in western North America or Europe," he notes. "During my dissertation research, I spent six months in Japan (plus three weeks in Taiwan) doing fieldwork and studying herbarium specimens. The experience gave me a chance to learn about the flora and vegetation of Japan and Taiwan and experience the cultures of those two places. At that time, China was essentially still closed."

After completing his dissertation in 1978, he worked for two and a half years in the Section of Botany at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Suddenly, China opened its borders to the West, and Boufford took advantage of the opportunity.

Photo courtesy David Bouford

David Boufford's 2006 field team. He is second from right.

"In 1980, I was fortunate to be one of five Americans on the first botanical expedition to China since 1949. We went to western Hubei Province to two very interesting areas: the Shennongjia Forest District and the metasequoia (dawn redwood) area in Lichuan Xian near the Sichuan border. Both areas are reminiscent of the eastern United States from the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia and the Carolinas to central New England. I knew that one of the best places in the world to study this similarity of the plants of Asia and America was at the Harvard University Herbaria. The botanists at Harvard have had a long history of interest in eastern Asia, and have assembled a rich collection of plant specimens from Asia and elsewhere, and have one of the best botanical libraries in the world."

A position at the Herbaria opened in 1981, and Boufford has been there since. Since that first trip in 1980, he has participated in a number of other botanical expeditions to China and to other countries in the area. "During that time, we came to realize that the Hengduan Mountain region, where four of the major rivers of eastern Asia drain the Tibetan plateau, is one of the most diverse regions in the temperate Northern Hemisphere, but also one of the most poorly known. Until recently, much of the area has been closed to outsiders, and even Chinese biologists have had difficulty exploring the region." The Hengduan Mountains became the center of Boufford's work. He usually travels to China three or four times a year; once there, he and his team gather specimens of plants, which then go to an herbarium in China and to Harvard, where they are identified and studied. Duplicate specimens are sent to other herbaria throughout the world in return for plants from their expeditions. At the Herbaria, plants rest between sheets of colorful Chinese newspapers, awaiting study.

Photo courtesy David Bouford

A visit with a Tibetan bicyclist while Boufford (right) collects plants.

To sit with David Boufford and look at the photographs he has amassed is an education in itself; he is a master narrator, with intimate knowledge of geography. In his self-effacing way, he tells exotic tales of walking the grounds of a Tibetan temple and seeing seemingly infinite prayer flags canopying a windy stretch of road. He also recalls being on a biology expedition in Myanmar with renowned herpetologist Joseph Slowinski when he died from a poisonous snakebite. During the 28 hours between the snakebite and Slowinski's tragic death, the expedition group heard talk on the radio of something big happening far away in New York. The date was September 11, 2001.

Boufford and his colleagues Susan Kelly and Rick Ree have also thoroughly documented their findings online. Through collaboration with Google Earth, it is possible to see the actual area, via satellite, where a particular plant was gathered. At, a visitor can zoom in and see tree lines and mountain contours where many of the plants were collected, putting their project into a dynamic, global perspective.

Between his life in Cambridge and his travels to China, Boufford doesn't get back to Keene State often, but he climbs Mount Monadnock many weekends to keep himself in shape for his fieldwork. He speaks softly, but his passion for the plants, the mountains, and the people of southern China, as well as the role that he gets to play in educating people about them, is evident.

"There is still much to be learned about plants and animals in nature and not just in the lab. Besides learning about the plants where they grow, we also have the added bonus of meeting the people in the areas we visit, learning about their culture and sharing our experiences. It helps them gain a better understanding of us as outsiders, and it is immensely helpful to us to be able to see how they live and how they rely on the natural environment for so many of their needs."