In 1876, there were 5,000 people and 12 trees in Cheyenne, WY. 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 often hastened the end of an already short growing season.

Mayday tree

This drought-tolerant Mayday tree (Prunus padus) has survived – and thrived – at the High Plains Arboretum with little care.

Photo Credit: Shane Smith

High Plains Arboretum open house

The High Plains Arboretum sponsors an open house each spring. Visitors can see firsthand which trees and shrubs will do well in their own landscapes.

Photo Credit: Shane Smith

Philadelphus lewisii ‘Cheyenne’

Philadelphus lewisii ‘Cheyenne’ is one of the terrific plants developed by Plant Select® for the harsh High Plains environment.

Photo Credit: Dr. Curtis Swift, Colorado State University Extension

In short, it was the perfect spot for horticultural research.

In 1929, the USDA 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. It demonstrated that homesteaders could grow crops, plant windbreaks and enjoy flowers in the inhospitable expanse.

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 for testing from such exotic locations as Korea, Bulgaria, Russia, France and Norway. They knew if plants could survive Cheyenne’s cold winters and dry summers, they could grow anywhere.

It’s easy to imagine how grateful early residents must have been to plant short-season tomatoes, first-year raspberries and hardy strawberries. Windbreaks and shelterbelts surely provided welcome relief from Wyoming’s unrelenting winds.

Today’s gardeners continue to reap the benefits of the research conducted at the field station. Many of the plants tested at the facility, such as Ogallala strawberries and ‘Blue Velvet’ honeysuckle, have been released to the nursery trade and can be found throughout the area. Plant propagators continue to take cuttings and collect seeds for new releases, including some of the Plant Select® recommendations like ‘Cheyenne’ mockorange (Philadelphus lewisii Cheyenne®) released in 2001.

Today the USDA conducts grasslands research on the site. In addition, a group called the Friends of the High Plains Arboretum (an offshoot of the Friends of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens), has worked to preserve the field station’s remaining trees and shrubs as a public arboretum. “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.”

The group has been successful in acquiring 62 acres of land from the USDA and transferring them to the city of Cheyenne for the High Plains Arboretum. Work on a 20-year master plan kicked into gear the summer of 2008, with preservation efforts aimed at mowing, pruning, mulching and watering. The next step will be to bring declining trees back to health and then replanting, according to Shane. Some of the first collections targeted for restoration include the lilacs, roses, cottonwoods and oaks.

Shane says he was surprised to see a large flock of birds enjoying the late summer fruit of several small mulberry trees. “Mulberries at this altitude and in this climate are unheard of,” he says. “To find drought-tolerant and deer-tolerant red and white mulberries was a surprise. We’d love to release something like that in the future.”

So stay tuned…who knows what stalwart plants are yet to be discovered at the High Plains Arboretum?!