DEPARTMENT OF BOTANY
U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition
U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition
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For Botanist Charles Wright, his assistant James Small, and the crew of the U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition, traveling to Asia was “entirely new… and of unsurpassed interest.” Due to an increase in the American whaling industry, Congress funded an expedition to explore the Bering Straits, North Pacific Ocean, and China Seas in 1852. In Hong Kong alone, Wright discovered 12 new plant species and 46 plant species that were previously unknown to the area.
The expedition—led by Captain Cadwalader Ringgold, and later, by Lt. John Rodgers—was responsible for discovering a new species of plant and new classifications of seaweed. While some specimens were sent to the Smithsonian Institution, the majority were sent to Asa Gray at Harvard University, who had provided expedition supplies for Wright and Small.
Wright spent much of his time from March 17 through September 20, 1854 collecting green algae specimens in Hong Kong. He was intrigued to come across the orange algae Chroolepus chinensis on damp rocks and in mountainous regions. Upon closer examination, he discovered that the chlorophyll of this plant is green and that the orange hue is produced by a substantial amount of carotenoid pigment.
Wright also documented many surprising plant relationships. He found Skimmia japonica—an evergreen shrub containing clusters of white flowers amid bright red fruit—on the northern part of the island of Jesso. The characteristics of the fruit was similar to the fruits of the Euodia genus—a group of plants indigenous to Polynesia. S. japonica was the first of many plants found that related to “known species in a region where they were not known before.”
Vast varieties of seaweed, however, continued to be the dominant specimens collected in the North Pacific. On May of 1855, Wright discovered the pink algae Cystophyllum fusiforme on the eastern coast of Japan. This alga was being destroyed by the rapid growth of a yellowish-brown seaweed, Sargassum filicinum. While examining S. filicinum’s destructive nature, Wright was the first to discover a peculiar dark brown seaweed, which he named Sargassum ringgoldianum in honor of the former captain of the expedition.
Although many new plant species were discovered, the expedition was “by no means limited to the detection of entirely new species,” and many plants had already been found in other countries. In Japan, Small saw the snakemouth orchid Pogonia ophioglossoides. This white and pink orchid, originally thought to be indigenous in eastern portions of America and central Canada, was one of many species discovered on this expedition that had previously only been found in America.
The plants that were found during the U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition were of extreme importance to many herbariums. The collection of this expedition was one of many collections that led to the formation of the U.S. National Herbarium in 1869.
Gray, Asa. Proceeding of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Vol. 4, “Characters of New alga, chiefly from Japan and Adjacent Regions, collected by Charles Wright in the North Pacific Exploring Expedition under Captain John Rodgers”: Boston, 327-335.
Gray, Asa. Diagnostic Characters of New Species of Phaenogamous Plants, Collected in Japan by Charles Wright, Botanist of the U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition. Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences: Vol 6 (1859): 377-452.
Hayes, Derek. Historical Atlas of the North Pacific Ocean. North Pacific Marine Science Organization, 2001.
Mark, R.D. “Hong Kon Lichens Collected on the United States Exploring Expedition, 1853-1856.” The Bryologist 108 (Summer 2005): 282-286.
Library of the Gray Herbarium. “U.S. Japan Expedition (1852-1854) and U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856).” Gray Archives, n.d. http://www.huh.harvard.edu/libraries/expinv/JAPAN.html.
Vasey, George. “National Herbarium at Washington.” Botanical Gazette 6 (1886).