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INTRODUCTION

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.  

The 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 to tell.

The Russian Revolution and the Redveined Crabapple

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 assassinated.

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 the U.S.

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.

‘Dolgo’ 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 Ornamental Cherry

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 camel hairbrush.

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 revolutionary leaders.

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.”

Of 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 Communist Party.

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 province.

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 years end, 100,000 died in Hunan alone.

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.

USDA: United States Department of Agriculture.

GardenSMART visited the Cheyenne High Plains Horticulture Research Station:
http://www.gardensmart.com/?p=current_episode

Cheyenne High Plains Horticulture Research Station website:
http://www.botanic.org/Arboretum.asp

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens:
http://www.botanic.org

 

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