Many of us
do not think of risk-taking or bloody revolutions when we think of garden
plants. In this week’s guest article by
writer and historical tree expert Scott Skogerboe, we learn that many of these favorites are the result of a
plant collector so captivated with finding something new, he or she will even
risk their life.
USDA Cheyenne High Plains Horticulture Research Station
By Scott Skogerboe|
Plantsman Scott Skogerboe
Fort Collins Wholesale Nursery
Fort Collins, Colorado
Writer and preservationist of historical trees.
(This article was originally published in the
“Colorado Gardener” Magazine. Reprinted with permission.)
In the late 1800’s the United States Department of Agriculture began to send
forth plant explorers to the far reaches of the globe. These plant
explorers had to possess extensive botanical knowledge, as well as extreme
courage and determination in order to enter unknown, often dangerous places.
More than a few failed to return home to tell their tale.
This active search for new plants was a
revolutionary approach, a bold move to benefit the American people. Those who
did successfully complete their mission came home with plants that played a
major role in establishing American agriculture.
In order to efficiently evaluate the vast amount
of plant material pouring into the United States from these explorations abroad, the USDA
set up field stations across the country in places that resembled the climatic
conditions where the plants were discovered.
In 1928, Congress established the USDA Central
Great Plains Field Station in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The charge was to experiment
with and propagate trees, shrubs, vines and vegetables adapted to the
conditions and needs of the semi-arid and dryland regions of the United States.
Although the station placed heavy emphasis on food
crops and edible plants, a sizeable collection of ornamentals was also assembled
there, as a location was needed to test plant material from the colder regions
of the world.
With a few exceptions, occasional stumps and
deadwood carcasses are all that remain of the acres of fruit trees, which were
bulldozed when the project ended. The horticulture station closed in 1974 and
the 2,139-acre facility became a USDA Grasslands Research Station.
Today, the ornamental arboretum, though still impressive,
is just a shadow of its former self. During the last 24 years, the trees and
shrubs relied only on natural precipitation to survive and many perished as a
consequence. In fact, 50% of the plants inventoried in 1974 no longer exist.
The remaining plants are a part of our horticultural heritage and each year
more and more quietly pass away. Many of the trees and shrubs growing silently
in Cheyenne are plants alive with history, and each one has a different story
The Russian Revolution and the Redveined
In 1905, passion ruled the lives of the people of
Russia. In the midst of poverty, suffering and corrupt privilege, they were
caught up in ambitions of politics, ideology and revolution.
In the relative calm of the United States a young
man with a gentle, scholarly passion for horticulture, Niels Hansen, was
interested in the outcome of the revolution for other reasons. He was hoping
for a chance to re-enter the country in his quest for new plants.
Eight years earlier the Danish-born Hansen had
traversed Russia for 10 months as the first official USDA plant explorer. His
assignment was to find flora and fauna that might benefit the Great Plains
region of the United States.
His first journey met with great success. Among other
finds, he collected seeds from a Siberian Crabapple at the Imperial Botanic
Garden in St. Petersburg, which grew into the renowned ornamental variety he
named ‘Dolgo’ (the Russian
word for “long”),
still a popular variety today.
Our history books are filled with the tumultuous
events of 1905. Czar Nicholas II had his hands full with a disastrous war
against Japan. Russia’s
economy was in a shambles; strikes demanding political reform and better
working conditions were commonplace; and top government officials were being
The decisive blow came on January 22, “Bloody Sunday,”
when a massive procession of workers marched toward the Czar’s winter palace in St. Petersburg
demanding reform. When they refused orders to disperse, the Cossacks charged, leaving
1,500 dead. News of this massacre spread and 64% of the Russian work force went
on strike, crippling the country.
The Czar relented and granted a constitution
promising increased civil liberties. Exiled Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was
at rest, at least temporarily. Back in America, news of the end of turmoil in
Russia was music to Hansen’s
ears. A professor of horticulture at South Dakota State University, he
had been yearning to return to Russia for nine years.
Sailing from New York, Hansen embarked on his
second exploration of Russia, arriving in St. Petersburg to find that the
Russian Revolution had not been squelched. Twenty-two police officers were
killed the week before he arrived. He quickly left St. Petersburg heading east.
At Alma Alta, near the Tian Shan Mountains which
separate Russia from China, he met a Czarist official, Mr. Niedwetzky, who had found a
unique variant of the common apple with red flesh, red wood, red new leaves,
and red flowers. This apple was given the botanic name, Malus pumila var. niedzwetzkyana,
commonly known as the Redveined Crabapple. It became the source of all crabapples
with reddish pink flowers, known generically as Rosy Bloom crabs, including such heralded
varieties as ‘Radiant’, ‘Hopa’, ‘Indian Magic’, ‘Centurion’, ‘Profusion’, ‘Thunder
Child’, and ‘Prairie Fire’.
Hansen headed next toward Siberia where he was to
find his most valuable discovery, the northern limits of alfalfa. Up until this
point, domestic alfalfa was much too tender for the northern Great Plains of
At a stopover in Omsk, a small city in Siberia,
Hansen witnessed revolutionists setting a government building on fire, then systematically gunning down government officials as
they ran outside to escape the flames. And when he reached Vladivostok Hansen
noted, “I crossed the square where soldiers were on one side, revolutionists on
the other, and the feeling was very tense.” He immediately boarded a steamer
and returned home, six months after he arrived in St. Petersburg.
Once in America over 300 lots of seed and plants
that Hansen collected were sent to Washington to be distributed at agencies
cooperating with the USDA, including his own department at South Dakota State.
was released in 1917 and ‘Hopa’ in 1920. As with most woody plants, it
can take decades for new introductions to become known to the general public,
no matter how spectacular the plant may be.
Once the Cheyenne Station opened in 1928, Hansen
quickly sent them his better discoveries. If the plants tested well in the USDA
system, it would lend a greater acceptance of these superior plants to the High
Plains and Rocky Mt. States.
The Redveined Crabapple, Malus pumula niedzwetzkyana, survived at the station for 50 years
before succumbing in the early 1980’s.
Fortunately, when the station closed in 1974, cuttings were sent to the
USDA Malus germplasm repository in
Geneva, NY where it survives today. If you visit the Cheyenne Station in late
May, you will notice the reddish-pink blooms of fifteen different “children” of
the Russian apple Hansen brought back with him from the midst of revolution.
The French Revolution and the Des Fontanes
The King of France, Louis the 16th, sat solemnly
under house arrest in the palace of the Tuilleries contemplating his fate,
worrying about his children and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, and wondering how
things had gone so terribly wrong. He had not been a bad king and he thought he
had served his subjects well, but times were different now.
Buoyed by the liberal and Democratic ideas that
emerged during the Enlightenment, the people of France were tired of aristocratic
privilege and were demanding legal and civil equality.
On July 14, 1789, an angry mob stormed the
Bastille, and freed the inmates, mostly political prisoners and enemies of the monarchy.
The Reign of Terror in France had begun.
One of the leaders of the revolution was
Maximillian Robespierre, an incorruptible zealot with a thirst for
counter-revolutionary blood. Countless thousands, including the King and Queen,
met their end by the Guillotine during this period.
Robespierre himself, a victim of his own paranoia,
was arrested and executed by frightened members of his own party. Although the
events in France were horrific, everyday life went on for the majority of citizens.
In the French countryside, far from bloodletting,
a botanist, Rene Des Fontane, busied himself in his garden, quietly dusting
pollen he had collected from one Cherry onto the flowers of another with a
The resulting tree, Prunus x fontanesiana, commonly known as the Des Fontanes Cherry is
a hybrid between the Sweet Cherry, Prunus
avium, and the St. Lucie Cherry, Prunus
maheleb. It was one of the most interesting and ornamental of all trees
grown at the Cheyenne station.
The last one known to exist in the world was just
a stump in Cheyenne, but fortunately, it was rescued by Dr. Bert Swanson, a
former Colorado State University horticulture professor, who propagated it and
planted it at the P.E.R.C. (Plant Environmental Research Center) Arboretum in
Ft. Collins in 1978.
When in bloom, this healthy, large tree is covered
with a beautiful “cloud” of white flowers. The tree inherited the pyramidal
growth habit of the Sweet Cherry and the adaptability to alkaline soil and
drier conditions of the St. Lucie Cherry. The fruit is, unfortunately, very bitter.
The Des Fontanes Cherry is being considered as a
future candidate for the Plant Select cooperative program between CSU (Colorado
State University), the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Colorado Green Industry.
The American Revolution and
the Sweet Bough and Esopus Spitzenburg Apples.
A small smile appeared on Thomas Jefferson’s face as he contemplated his
political career. His two terms as President of the United States had
been, for the most part, a success. He had enjoyed his time in France as
ambassador and was proud of his part in writing the Declaration of Independence
from Great Britain. Although the revolutionary war with England had cost many
human lives, the outcome was a government by consent, which established the
equality and inalienable rights of Americans.
In 1809, Jefferson retired to Monticello, his
Virginia country estate, to enjoy the simpler life. Agriculture was always one
of his main interests and he set about to improve the estate orchard with
varieties of fruit he knew to be connoisseur quality. At the top of the list
was an apple from the town of Esopus in Upstate New York called ‘Esopus
Spitzenburg’ which Jefferson considered
his personal favorite.
This dark red apple, the parent of ‘Jonathan’, has crisp, juicy, aromatic,
sprightly tangy flesh and keeps in storage for upward to nine months. ‘Esopus Spitzenburt’ apples can be seen today growing
on the grounds of Monticello, a living reminder of one of our
At the Cheyenne Station, the ‘Esopus Spitzenburg’ apple proved too tender to
survive the 28-year period of evaluation and was killed during
a “test” winter. However, this apple is hardy in slightly warmer climes and was
the leading commercial apple in the orchards around Grand Junction at the turn
of the century. Another apple popular in revolutionary times is the ‘Sweet
Bough’, a yellow summer
ripening apple with fruit of “honeyed sweetness.”
the over 1300 different fruit trees tested in Cheyenne, the ‘Sweet Bough’ is one of only 12 still alive in
the fruit evaluation blocks. The majority of the others were bulldozed
out in the 1960’s after their
evaluation was completed and recommendations were made in the following,
highly useful, USDA publications: “Twenty Eight Years of Testing Tree Fruit
Varieties at the Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station,” ARS 34-39 by Gene
Howard and G.B. Brown Oct. 1962.; “Hardy, Productive Tree Fruits for the High
Altitude Section of the Central Great Plains Region,” ARS 34-40 by Gene Howard
and G.B. Brown. Oct 1962.
The Chinese Revolution, the ‘Pink Lady’
Euonymus, and the ‘Hung Hai Tung’ Crabapple
Chiang Kai-shek needed the support of the left
leaning Chinese peasantry in order to gain power as the new leader in China
following the death of Sun Yatsen in 1925. His Kuomintang Party formed an alliance with the Chinese
Mao Tsetung was a young Communist Party official
who spent most of his time organizing unions for the peasants of his home
province of Hunan. Mao was so successful that, by 1927, Hunan had 2.8 million communist
Party members, up from only 995 members in 1925, and more than any other
Chiang Kai-shek had cause for alarm and thus his
betrayal of the alliance began. On May 21 1927, troops of the Kuomintang
marched into Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, shouting “Long live
Chiang Kai-shek” and Started shooting unarmed citizens. By the year’s end, 100,000 died in Hunan
During that same time, USDA plant explorer, P.H.
Dorsett was searching northern China for plant material, which would benefit
Americans of the northern tier states. While searching the grounds of the Temple
of Heaven in Beijing he noted “A fine looking specimen of Euonymus growing out
of a stone wall. The yellowish green leaves with pink stems and bright red
berries with yellowish arils make a remarkably fine showing.”
This Euonymus bungeanus selection can be seen
growing at the Cheyenne station and is a quite exceptional multi-stemmed small
tree, considering it is over 60 years old. The plant was selected and named ‘Pink
Lady’ by the New Mexico Soil
Conservation Service who received cuttings from Cheyenne in the 1960’s.
Another exquisite tree found in China during
Dorsett’s exploration is the ‘Hung
Hai Tung‟ Crabapple, Malus asiatica. During a stopover in Jilin province at the
Buddhist temple of Fa Hua Ssu he notes; “The fruits are 1/2 to 3/4
inches in diameter and ripen in the middle of August.
Dorsett found this tree in autumn and had no idea
that it would turn out to have abundant white flower blossoms 2” in diameter
with a delightfully sweet fragrance. This crabapple, now 66 years old at the
station, is the largest and the most spectacular of all the trees in the Malus collection.
The Cheyenne Station is a national treasure in the
eyes of everyday plant lovers, but unfortunately, plants do not live forever.
Over the years, modern day plant explorers have visited the Station, taken
cuttings and collected seeds so, fortunately, quite a few of these plant
treasures have already been re-discovered.
Several of the plants originating at the station
are presently being offered in the nursery trade, such as the Cheyenne Privet,
the Highlands Cottonwood, the Oakleaf Mountain Ash, the Forever Gold and
Prairie Snow Potentillas, and the Blue Velvet Honeysuckle. Of the hundreds of
other trees and shrubs remaining at the station, most do not have revolutionary
figures to glorify their significance, but they each have history nonetheless.
Many are extremely rare, one of
a kind specimens with unknown origins. If these plants could talk, imagine
the stories they could tell.
United States Department of Agriculture.
visited the Cheyenne High Plains Horticulture Research Station:
High Plains Horticulture Research Station website:
Cheyenne Botanic Gardens: