High Plains Horticulture
By John F. Freeman
University Press of Colorado Copyright © 2008 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
Vegetable gardens and ornamental flowers provide the setting for some of the most poignant episodes in Willa Cather's O Pioneers! Although fictional, they may well be the most widely read depiction of early settler life on the High Plains. Take, for example, John Bergson addressing his children from his deathbed: "[D]on't grudge your mother a little time for plowing her garden and setting out fruit trees, even if it comes in a busy season. She has been a good mother to you, and she has always missed the old country." Her garden helped Mrs. Bergson reconstruct her former life insofar as possible.
Then, on a September afternoon two years later, Alexandra, the eldest of the Bergson children and by then fourteen, is found by her boyfriend, Carl Linstrum, in her mother's garden, resting from digging sweet potatoes: "[T]he dry garden patch smelled of drying vines and was strewn with yellow seed-cucumbers and pumpkins and citrons. At one end, next to the rhubarb, grew feathery asparagus, with red berries. Down the middle of the garden was a row of gooseberry and currant bushes. A few tough zinnias and marigolds and a row of scarlet sage bore witness to the buckets of water that Mrs. Bergson had carried there after sundown, against the prohibition of her sons."
Willa Cather's contemporary, Charles S. Harrison, a Congregational minister and amateur horticulturist who once lived just a few miles west of the novelist's hometown of Red Cloud, observed: "Many a poor woman on the frontier has slowly faded away with soul starvation. She had potatoes enough, but she needed flowers." Even under the most primitive conditions of early settlement, vegetables fed the body and flowers fed the soul.
On the High Plains, the actual origins of horticulture, in the broadest sense of cultivation of the soil, remain obscure. Some archaeological evidence suggests that prehistoric Plains Indians cultivated the sunflower (Helianthus annus L.), but no such evidence is specifically known for the High Plains. Spanish explorers, roaming through the region from Central America, apparently introduced maize, beans, and pumpkin. Early-nineteenth-century explorers, traders, and trappers occasionally found those plants cultivated around Indian habitations.
The Plains Indians, as we know, were primarily hunters, but they did gather, cook, dry, and process a wide variety of native plants. Among the most common was the prairie turnip (Psoralea esculenta Pursh). As late as 1905, Niels Hansen observed Indians in southwestern South Dakota using these plants: "[T]he Indians dig them out from the prairie sod with a pointed stick and braid them into long chains. When ready to use them, the outer dark brown or blackish coating is removed, leaving the snow white starchy bulb."
Actually, the prairie turnip is not a turnip at all but a legume variously known as scurfy pea, breadroot, Indian breadroot, Indian turnip, prairie potato, pomme blanche, ground apple, white apple, Tipsin, Tipsinna, and Dakota turnip — all of which suggests the wisdom of using the scientific names of plants as well as their horticultural or common names. The scientific names follow International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature and thus are universally recognized, but the common names are governed by no formal code and vary from region to region.
At the outset of our story, therefore, and to avoid future confusion, we must understand the rudiments of plant nomenclature. Because Latin was the first, universal language of the sciences, eighteenth-century botanists adapted, and in some cases invented, Latinate words to identify plants, their relationships to each other, and the authors who first described them. Hierarchically from the most general to the most specific, botanists classify plants at six levels: division or phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. We need concern ourselves only with the last three levels. The family name of a plant is generally recognized by the ending aceae; for example, the western sand cherry belongs to the rose family known as Rosaceae. Within that family, the western sand cherry belongs to the genus Prunus, the genus name always given as a Latin noun. Within that genus, the species name is written as a Latin adjective, in this case, besseyi.
It turns out that Liberty Hyde Bailey, dean of American horticulturists and longtime professor at Cornell University, first described the western sand cherry as a separate species in 1898. He named it Prunus besseyi in honor of his friend and colleague Charles Bessey of Nebraska. Thus the full scientific name of the western sand cherry became Prunus besseyi L.H. Bailey.
To somewhat complicate the matter of nomenclature, especially for those of us with little or no background in the sciences, the systematic classification of plants is fluid rather than static, changing as a result of new research and other factors. To continue our example, Henry Allan Gleason (Gl.) of the New York Botanical Garden reclassified the western sand cherry in 1952, from a separate species to a variety or subspecies of the sand cherry (Prunus pumila L.) — the latter first described by Carl Linnaeus (L.), the founder of modern taxonomy. As a result, the western sand cherry is now known and written as Prunus pumila L. var. besseyi (Bailey) Gl.
In addition to the plants created in nature, a great number of varieties have been developed through plant propagation and plant breeding. Known as cultivars, the names of these varieties are generally given in English and written in single quotes, such as Fragaria vesca L. cv. 'Ogallala' for the strawberry cultivar developed at the Cheyenne Field Station from the crossing of a hardy native plant with a large commercial variety.
Because the early traders were essentially hunters, the numerous edible plants native to the High Plains undoubtedly played an insignificant role in relieving starvation. With the establishment of trading outposts on the High Plains in the 1820s and 1830s, efforts certainly were made, albeit isolated, to grow vegetables — for example, at Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River, Lupton's Fort on the South Platte, and Fort William (later renamed Fort Laramie) on the North Platte. If the recollections of Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville (1832) are any indication, horticulture at Fort William generally did only marginally well: "All attempts at agriculture and gardening in the neighborhood ... have been attended with very little success. The grain and vegetables raised there have been scanty in quantity and poor in quality." Given the aridity and the elevation (4,300 feet), the region was slated to remain forever in "a state of pristine wildness."
That view was confirmed by Edwin Bryant, a Kentucky journalist who stopped at Fort William fourteen years later, in June 1846, on his way to California. "Not a foot of ground around the fort is under cultivation," he reported. "Experiments have been made with corn, wheat and potatoes, but they either have resulted in entire failures, or were not so successful as to authorize a renewal." In addition to the adverse climatic conditions, Bryant suggested another reason for crop failures: "The Indians, who claim the soil as their property, and regard the Fur Company as occupants by sufferance, are adverse to all agricultural experiments; and on one or two occasions they entered the small enclosures, and destroyed the young corn and other vegetables as soon as they made their appearance above the ground." After the U.S. government purchased the fort in 1849, the military at certain times of the year posted guards around the clock to protect its gardens.
Indeed, since 1818 the War Department had specified that soldiers at every military post "will annually cultivate a garden ... equal to supplying hospital and garrisons with the necessary kitchen vegetables throughout the year" and that the commanding officer "will be held accountable for any deficiency in the cultivation." That was a tough order for any post on the High Plains, although surprisingly well accomplished at Fort Laramie beginning with the 1850 growing season, flourishing after the Civil War, and continuing until the fort's abandonment in 1890.
The War Department's order of September 11, 1818, had been given for reasons of both health and finance. By then, it was well understood that vegetables and fruits were essential to good health, most specifically for preventing the debilitating effects of scurvy, which we now know are a result of diets deficient in Vitamin C. In addition, the War Department sought to limit transportation expenses by having soldiers, so far as possible, grow their own produce. The high cost of transporting bulk goods, before the advent of the railroad, would serve both as obstacle to importing plant materials and as incentive for local horticulture.
Fort Laramie was among the outposts most distant from supply depots, strategically situated 600 miles west-northwest of Fort Leavenworth (the beginning of the Oregon Trail), at the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers on the High Plains of eastern Wyoming. In the early spring of 1850, Fort Laramie's supply officer recorded that he had gotten ten acres "sod-busted," that he had secured plows to cultivate the land, and that he would "put in as much seed, corn, oats and barley, as my means will allow." He had also secured the services of a settler, recently arrived from the Arkansas River valley and knowledgeable about irrigation. That arrangement did not last long, as the settler joined a convoy en route to the gold mines of California. This led the officer to send an agent to Taos to recruit ten to twelve Mexicans, knowing they would be familiar with irrigated farming, which the supply officer believed was the only way to successfully cultivate around Fort Laramie. The officer also noted that Mexicans worked more cheaply than Americans.
The earliest irrigation at Fort Laramie consisted of a single earthen ditch, no more than a few hundred yards in length, taking water out of the Laramie River for gardens on nearby bottomland. Nothing indicates that seeds were purchased from nearby Indians or settlers or that the soldiers had collected seeds of native edible plants. Instead, the post supply officer requisitioned seeds from Fort Leavenworth. In late summer of 1856, he reported that, while his potato plants looked well, the fact that his seed potatoes had arrived in poor condition meant the harvest "will be very small, if it does not fail entirely." As a result, he requested his counterpart at Fort Leavenworth to take great care not only in selecting the best plants but also in carefully packing them in hay to protect against freezing while on the trail. The extraordinary difficulties of transporting plant materials long distances would remain a major challenge to the development of horticulture on the High Plains.
That fact makes all the more remarkable the stories of the earliest settler women who brought to Nebraska cuttings of their favorite houseplants — geraniums, for example — as reminders of the civilization they had left behind. To be sure, they also collected native plants, providing both food to the table and pleasantness to the home. Along watercourses they could find several species of greens such as lamb's quarter (Chenopodium berlandieri Moq.), asparagus (Asparagus officinalis L.), and onion (Allium canadensis L); on hillsides and prairie ravines they could find the American plum (Prunus americana Marsh.), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana L.), red currant (Ribes cereum Dougl.), black currant (Ribes americanum P. Mill.), buffalo currant (Ribes odoratum Wendl.), and bush grape (Vitis acerifolia Raf.). In sandy, rocky areas they could find buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea [Pursh] Nutt.) and the sand cherry (Prunus pumila L. var. besseyi). Their selection of ornamentals for transplanting likely converged on those plants found similar to the plants they knew back East. In addition, we note early descriptions of dugouts and sod houses, both with wildflowers growing on their roofs.
Since the time of the earliest homesteads, horticulture has served a distinctly palliative role in making life more pleasant for women. Unquestionably, loneliness, insecurity, and hard conditions on the High Plains affected women more than men. Testimonials to the salutary effects of horticulture over the harshness of life continued throughout the history of the High Plains. In the thrilling story based on the life of Jules Sandoz, a neighbor returns to his western Nebraska homestead on a cold January day, having been away to earn enough money to support his family, and finds his wife and three children dead. Later, a neighbor woman, helping to prepare for the funeral, reflects sorrowfully on the deceased wife: "If she could [have] had even a geranium — but in that cold shell of a shack" that was not possible.
If one had to choose a single activity to represent the advent of permanent human settlement on the High Plains, it would be tree planting. When settlers began arriving, "[T]rees were so rare in that country," observed Jim Burden, narrator of Willa Cather's My Antonia, "and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons."
Tree planting began in southeastern Nebraska during the 1850s and spread west beyond the 98th meridian by 1860. The earliest tree planters took shade and forest tree cuttings from along watercourses and dug up saplings for transplanting. The earliest fruit trees, however, came from points east of the Missouri River. In 1856, J. Sterling Morton, who would found Arbor Day and later became secretary of agriculture under President Grover Cleveland, imported 500 apple trees for his Nebraska City farm; and Robert W. Furnas, Nebraska's second governor, established the state's first commercial nursery, at Brownville, also in the mid-1850s.
Though partisan political adversaries, Morton and Furnas helped pass the earliest state legislation pertaining to horticulture on the High Plains. By act of the Nebraska Territorial Legislature in 1861, any Nebraska property owner who planted at least 100 fruit or ornamental trees, or 400 forest trees, per acre received a fifty dollar exemption on the valuation of that property. This act proved so popular that the resulting decline in tax revenues drove the legislature to repeal it in 1864.
While Nebraskans, from east to west, deservedly earned the reputation of tree planters, Coloradoans along the Front Range successfully established themselves as market gardeners and orchardists. The impetus for such horticulture came as a result of the demand for foodstuffs generated by the gold and silver rush into the Rocky Mountains; its development depended on successfully harnessing the water flowing out of the mountains onto the plains. For those who did not see the Front Range before the 1960s, it may be impossible to imagine that at one time, dotted with gardens, farms, and orchards, this was one of the world's great intensive-agriculture regions.
David K. Wall, who arrived in 1859 from Indiana via California, where he had raised and supplied food for miners, is considered the first market gardener to use irrigation in Colorado. He took enough water out of Clear Creek to irrigate about two acres near Golden. Concerning such early irrigation efforts, Elwood Mead, a pioneer irrigation engineer, observed that generally brush and stones were used to deflect streams. Irrigators probably just used a few shovelfuls of earth to make embankments and then shoveled open passages to cultivated plots as water was needed. Wooden and iron head-gates to control water flow into ditches came later. By 1862, three years into the Rocky Mountain gold rush, waters for irrigation were being taken out of all the main streams within the upper South Platte watershed: Clear Creek, Boulder Creek, and the St. Vrain, Big Thompson, and Cache la Poudre rivers. Large-scale irrigation projects along the Front Range, however, would not begin until the 1870s, after the passage of legislation regulating water and the creation of irrigation institutions — partnerships, community cooperatives, corporations, and districts. (Continues...)
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