The Flora of China is an international collaborative project to publish a comprehensive catalog of all Chinese wild vascular plants, with full descriptions of 31,500 species and illustrations of about 20,000 species. This 25-year project began in 1988 and will produce 22 volumes of text and 22 of illustrations, an introductory volume and a book of more general interest entitled Plants of China. All of this published information is freely available online. The first volume of text appeared in 1994 and, by March of 2013, 22 volumes of text and 22 illustrations have been published. The final work on undertaking this monumental project centered on 2012, the “Year of China” at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
The Flora is jointly published by the Missouri Botanical Garden Press (St. Louis) and Science Press (Beijing). The Missouri Botanical Garden is the non-Chinese coordination center. Other centers in the West include the Smithsonian Institution; the California Academy of Sciences; the Harvard University Herbaria; the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; and the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.
The 31,500 species of Chinese vascular plants represent about eight percent of the world’s estimated total of ca. 400,000 species. This compares with some 19,500 in the U.S. and Canada combined and about 12,500 in Europe. Moreover, approximately 51 percent of the species in the Chinese flora are endemic (grow nowhere else on Earth as wild plants). This means that one in 25 of the world's plant species are confined to China. Information about Chinese plants is essential to the study of the evolution of North American and European plants, because several groups that were widespread in the northern temperate zone in prehistoric times now survive only in China.
Chinese plants are also important to the world because of their medicinal value. For thousands of years, the Chinese have used plants very extensively for medicinal purposes. It is estimated that more than 5,000 Chinese species are actively traded and used medically. The properties of these plants as sources of drugs, waxes, oils and other useful products are of considerable scientific interest. The Flora of China will provide a ready means of locating, understanding and utilizing these plants.
During the course of working on the Flora of China, consistent efforts are made to identify rare, vulnerable and endangered species of Chinese plants. This baseline taxonomic inventory will make it possible to locate and identify these species, evaluate threats to them and set in place the appropriate conservation measures. By making this information available, the Flora will help enlist the participation of the international community in China’s effort to preserve its own botanical diversity.
The Flora of China marks a new stage in the exchange of scientific information between China and the United States. The project was supported for almost two decades by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and is still supported by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the highest political/scientific body in China. Other major funding has been received from the Starr Foundation, the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust and Fondation Franklinia. The project involves the four most important botanical centers in China: the Institute of Botany, Beijing; the Kunming Institute of Botany; the South China Botanical Garden, Guangzhou; and the Jiangsu Institute of Botany, Nanjing.