The scenery changes dramatically on the highway from Denver to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Views of snow-covered peaks give way to rolling plains. Dense housing developments become sparse. A herd of shaggy buffalo grazes on short grass near the state line. I’m driving 100 miles to visit a 72-year-old tree: the Hung Hai Tung crab apple, found growing near a Chinese temple in the mid-1920s. How this tree made its way from China to Cheyenne is part of America’s rich horticultural history.
In 1876, there were 5,000 people and 12 trees in Cheyenne. Early settlers quickly learned it was nearly impossible to get plants to thrive in one of the harshest growing environments in the country. They struggled with the arid climate, alkaline soil, and constant wind. Hailstorms hastened the end to an already short growing season. It was the perfect spot for horticultural research.
In 1929, the United States Department of Agriculture opened the Central Great Plains Field Station (later renamed the Cheyenne Horticulture Field Station), just northwest of Cheyenne. The research conducted on the 2,200-acre site forever changed the landscape of the High Plains, from Montana to the Texas panhandle.
For 50 years, researchers experimented with 2,000 fruit varieties, 8,000 vegetable varieties, 1,300 varieties of woody ornamental plants, and 200 species of trees and shrubs. Plant hunters brought specimens from Korea, Bulgaria, Russia, France, and Norway. They knew that if plants could survive Cheyenne’s cold winters and dry summers, they could grow anywhere.
“This is an arboretum of stories and people,” says Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. “It’s probably one of the most important agricultural sites west of the Mississippi and its existence is being threatened right now.”
In 1974 die USDA shifted the site’s mission to land use strategies research, and the collections were left to fend for themselves. Although many have succumbed to neglect, almost half of the project’s trees and shrubs continue to survive, a tribute to their hardiness. Many of the historic buildings—die office, houses, root cellar, lath house, and greenhouse—also remain. The greenhouse roof is still covered with its original layers of chicken wire, installed to protect the glass from hail.
There is hope for the station’s continuing legacy. Many plants tested there, such as Ogallala strawberries and blue velvet honeysuckle, are still available in the nursery trade, and plant propagators continue to take cuttings and collect seeds for possible new releases. A group called the Friends of the High Plains Arboretum has developed a master plan to preserve the station’s remaining trees and shrubs. The Friends are working to investigate funding, organize work days and inventorying, and plan for other long-term goals.
Today, I’m too early to see the Cheyenne lilacs in bloom—and years too late to see the 800 varieties of apple trees and the acres of chrysanthemums. Still, I find the tree I’ve come to see, I silently admire the graceful form of the 25-foot-tall crab apple. Thanks to the stations visionary researchers, and to the people working to preserve what remains, I can see the past, present, and future right before my eyes.