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Sino-American botanical exchange: characteristics of success and lessons learnt

Volume 8 Number 1 - January 2011

Barnabas Seyler and Robert Lyons


International collaboration is increasingly recognized by botanic gardens, arboreta, and other public horticulture institutions as fundamentally important to fulfil the research, education, display, and conservation components of their respective missions (Hird, 2007; Raven, 2007; Rudyj, 1988). Many of the most pressing challenges today are truly international in scope. Concerns such as environmental degradation and ecological changes, the invasiveness of introduced plants, insects, and other pathogens, conservation and afforestation efforts, and the interconnected global economy require greater international exchange and collaborative research at all levels. Nonetheless, engaging in a meaningful international partnership is easier said than done. How does a public garden determine the best way to engage with potential partners in another country? What characteristics even constitute a successful exchange? How does one overcome the daunting and seemingly endless challenges?
Based on the research  of a recent graduate of the Longwood Graduate Program at the University of Delaware, USA, this article details the collaborative motivations between public gardens in China and North America, the challenges they encountered, and the characteristics of successful cooperative relationships(Seyler,2009). A two-pronged research approach was utilized, collecting data from both the Chinese and North American perspectives. Semi-structured, on-site interviews were conducted with the directors and/or upper management at 11 Chinese botanic gardens in seven provinces and provincial-level cities. Selected gardens reflected the variety of sizes and institutional models in China as well as the country’s geographic diversity. Surveys, interviews, focus groups, and case studies documented the North American perspective with data collected and examined from the American Public Gardens Association, The Garden Club of America, the North American China Plant Exploration Consortium, and key public gardens with histories of collaborating with China.
Although this research focused on the collaborative relationships forged between Chinese and North American public gardens, the lessons learned and insights gleaned are also valuable for international collaborative relationships in the larger context. Existing exchanges that proved successful over time were investigated and common factors documented. From plant collecting trips and joint research projects, to collaborative training programs and information exchange, the existence of strong personal relationships was the most important characteristic for overcoming barriers and successfully navigating the regulatory milieu.

Strong personal relationships are critical to successful collaboration

Collaborative motivation
Due to China’s unique geography, vast native flora, and diversity of extant plant associations rarely seen elsewhere in the world, the chief interests in collaboration from the American perspective were plant collection and germplasm exchange for research, education, and conservation purposes. One of the most persistent motivations of American scientists to study and conserve Chinese flora was its similarity to the native flora of North America and the important implications that this relationship has on understanding the taxonomic and systematic development of the floras on both continents (Boufford & Spongberg, 1983; Cheng, 1983; Del Tredici, 2007; Graham, 1972; Li, 1952; Raven, 1972; Wood, 1972; Wu, 1990; Ying, 1983). Many of the Chinese plants cultivated in American gardens today descend from only a few specimens wild-collected a century or more ago. Over time, due to in-breeding depression, these plants no longer display the same level of adaptability and robust growth and are now less valuable for conservation and research, compared to their wild counterparts.

Although plant collection and germplasm exchange were routinely listed as top collaborative motivators from the American perspective, significant support was identified from every sampled population for additional types of Sino-American collaboration including information and technical exchange, research and conservation work, cultural exchange, internships and educational exchange, as well as staff exchange. Key motivators for many American public gardens were the professional development opportunities for staff to grow in their confidence and in their cross-cultural understanding and to learn the artistry and methods employed by Chinese horticulturists growing traditional horticultural art forms. Research participants emphasized that staff exchange is critically important since it often lays the groundwork for other types of exchange by building meaningful relationships, impacts other modes of exchange, and amplifies their impact.

From the Chinese perspective, botanical exchange has been mostly one-sided in the past. Individuals were sent to study at US universities and public gardens, but the Chinese research participants believed that there was minimal meaningful reciprocity of Americans coming to study and conduct research in China. However, the Chinese now seek to encourage greater two-way exchange, specifically in terms of information, plant and staff exchange. A free exchange of current information was deemed vital since one never truly knows what information is needed until it is needed. Chinese research participants explained that a major collaborative motivator was to obtain the most up-to-date information on an ongoing basis about best practices, professional trends, continuing and published research, indices semina, as well as information and controls for highly invasive, introduced plants. Periodicals and newsletters like BGjournal were mentioned as quite helpful in communicating conservation issues, funding opportunities, and other so-called “hot-topics” (Wang, 2008).

As with the Americans, many Chinese research participants cited plant exchange for joint research and conservation purposes as being a critical collaborative goal. Many viewed a greater emphasis now on conserving and promoting a garden’s local plants. Nevertheless, collecting, conserving, and displaying so-called “superstar” plants (Chen, 2008), such as flashy cultivars, extremely rare plants, and others which may be used to easily connect with and educate the public, were deemed crucial. There was also interest in greater exchange of cultivars and hybrids for display and education purposes.

The Chinese research participants resoundingly identified staff exchange as the most important collaborative goal for their respective institutions since it expedites the establishment of the necessary relationships, mutual understanding, and critical contact networks that enable all other types of exchange to occur. They also believed it facilitates greater communication and enables both partners to learn from each other’s strengths. Research participants identified six main professional development goals for staff exchange: best horticultural practices; public education methods; research and conservation techniques; collections management procedures; garden management and public outreach methods; and private fundraising /development strategies.

Collaborative challenges
Because of the rapid changes in China, many of the American research participants noted the importance of staying continually engaged in collaboration in order to stay aware of the changes since one’s knowledge and experiences can quickly become outdated and of limited value. Many from the Chinese botanic gardens mentioned an interest in developing closer ties with their American counterparts, but they have thus far been unable to do so for various reasons. Data indicate that small public gardens in both the US and China do desire to collaborate and engage in international exchange. However, due to factors associated with and exacerbated by their size, small gardens in both countries are usually unable.

Research participants from every sampled population indicated that domestic and international regulations and bureaucratic red tape, including obtaining proper visas and permits present significant and increasing challenges to collaboration. Confusion related to the implications of international treaties and the lack of uniformity in local enforcement were also listed as significant challenges. Research participants noted that these challenges reiterated the need for greater cooperation and relationship building between botanical gardens since gardens, researchers and plant collectors can no longer operate in relative isolation.

Language and cultural concerns were also identified as collaborative difficulties. Since expectations and assumptions vary from culture to culture, considering how cultural expectations are to be addressed (e.g. who pays for what and when) is quite important and should be clarified from the start to ensure balance and equity. In addition, differences in public opinion and understanding from one country to the other can lead to major challenges. For example, collaborations dependent on “common assumptions” in one country may require significant educational efforts and/or greater advocacy in the other country if the assumption is not yet widely shared there (Aniśko, 2008).

Domestic and international policies and regulations, language and cultural differences all present challenges when establishing a partnership.”

Lack of time, funding, and proper contacts, as well as insufficient knowledge regarding the institutional strengths of potential collaborative partners were identified as inhibitory to collaboration on both sides. There are more than 150 botanical gardens in China and more than 500 in North America. With each being structured differently according to different institutional models, it is quite difficult for gardens in one country to assess the institutional strengths of specific gardens in the other country. Not having a way to obtain this knowledge within the other country makes determining the most advantageous collaborative partner for a particular need quite difficult.

Addressing the challenges
Research participants noted that the most successful collaborations are ongoing and involve meaningful institutional commitments that last over time. The rapid pace of change today reiterates the importance of ongoing collaboration in order for institutions to remain abreast of the changes and maintain up-to-date working knowledge. Chinese public horticulture institutions are rapidly growing, not only in terms of the expansion of existing facilities and capacities but also in terms of the establishment of new institutions. Building and maintaining relationships are critical to successful collaboration and collaborative partners should be willing to invest time, patience, and perseverance into developing good relationships. A successful collaborative relationship goes beyond individual projects, transcending their founding impetus, outliving the individuals that start them, and significantly benefitting the participating institutions on a number of fronts. Ongoing collaboration allows both sides to better understand the strengths, weaknesses, and priorities of their partner in order to better work together to meet shared goals.

All research participants defined successful collaboration to be both mutually beneficial and reciprocal. Not only should substantive benefits be derived on both sides, but exchange and movement of personnel, information, techniques, and resources should freely flow in both directions. All parties should gain from the experience, derive benefits, and be pleased with the results. Both sides should be upfront and clear about their goals and desired outcomes, should have a genuine interest in helping each other, and should possess an attitude of openness and engagement to facilitate communication and create an atmosphere of mutual trust.

Collaborators in a successful exchange should be considered equal partners with complementary resources, know-how, technology, plants, and information. Each side should be able to learn, accomplish, or improve something that they otherwise could not do on their own. Benefits need not be financial but should be of sufficient incentive to justify the collaboration. There should be a shared direction or common basis for collaboration, and the limits of each participant’s role and obligations should be clearly understood. Each party should seek to understand the other’s strengths and weaknesses and learn as much about their collaborator’s culture as possible.

“Successful collaboration should be both mutually beneficial and reciprocal.”

Staff exchange is well positioned to address the collaborative challenges existing in both China and North America since it facilitates and promotes ongoing relationship building. Data indicate that building relationships is crucial to successful collaboration since relationships are the basis for and often open the door to other types of exchange. In addition, training done independently or sporadically as opposed to via an ongoing system of exchange minimizes the overall effect that could otherwise be achieved since many benefits mature and additional opportunities arise over time. According to a survey sent to the American Public Gardens Association’s institutional membership, there was significant support expressed for staff exchange with two-thirds expressing interest in sending their own staff to study at Chinese institutions and three-quarters expressing interest in hosting staff from Chinese botanical gardens). Staff exchange was also mentioned as the top collaborative goal of the majority of Chinese research participants.

In summary, international botanical collaboration is increasingly recognized as necessary to address many of the most pressing challenges facing the world today. Ongoing exchange is essential in order to attain maximum effectiveness over time. Personal relationships are the hallmark of successful collaborative relationships; building and maintaining relationships are crucial to overcoming barriers and collaborative challenges. The more opportunities there are to encourage the formation of relationships, the greater their impact. Staff exchange is one of the most effective means of nurturing cross-cultural professional relationships while also expanding opportunities for other types of botanical exchanges. Therefore, in determining the best way to collaborate with international peers, ensure a successful exchange, and overcome collaborative challenges, the keys that will unlock the doors are found in personal relationships.

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A PDF copy of the entire thesis may be obtained by contacting:
Barnabas Seyler
Longwood Graduate Fellow
Class of 2009
University of Delaware, DE

Robert Lyons
Professor and Director, Longwood Graduate Program
University of Delaware, DE