Historical Report #18
SHRUBS AND FLOWERS – A VERY HUMAN NEED
Sketches by Melanie Shaw
The landscape opening out before the early settlers entering Cache Valley in the mid to late 1800s would have looked lush indeed – from a distance, much like a vast lawn. An early explorer in the 1830s described the valley as “one of the most extensive and beautiful vales of the Rocky Mountain range ... producing everywhere most excellent grass.” In surveys done in 1852 and 1870, the grazing was reported as probably the finest in the entire Salt Lake basin.
All this was good news for stockmen and for farmers with access to good irrigation. But picture the first few years of these settlers’ lives living in houses surrounded by nothing but prairie – for instance, on the Lewiston flat.
These people and others throughout the valley, having left the shade trees, flowering shrubs, and colorful flowers of Nauvoo and other communities in the east, would not be building their homes in the wooded foothills, but rather on the valley floor. There, trees and shrubby growth would be nonexistent except along the stream banks. Most shelters, for both humans and animals, would thus be built out in the open with no protection from wind and sun, frost and driven snow, as would anything planted around them by the owners.
Nevertheless, there was no lack of trying. The word was out among easteners preparing for the move across the Plains, for instance, that the West had little or no native fruit trees, so fruit tree cuttings and seeds were common items among the goods coming west. Among the pioneers were a scattering of plantsmen. After settling in Lewiston, the Stocks family raised transplants of the Balm-of-Gilead tree, Populus balsamifera or Balsam Poplar, and did a brisk business in tree sales in this part of the valley at five cents a tree. The Balsam Poplar was especially good for Lewiston since it could stand its high water table and frequent spring flooding that shortened the lives of other trees.
Various species of cherry bush and Bridal Wreath, Spirea vanhouttei, also found their way West through “starts” and cuttings. “Homesickness was a reality for each family moving West,” points out one researcher. “Having trees and shrubs that grew near former homes,” she writes, “would help them grow accustomed to new territory.” Journals existing today, mostly kept by women, tell of caring for cuttings stuck in potatoes to keep them viable during the journey over the plains. Most often carried West was the beloved lilac, Syringa vulgaris, or Common Lilac, the easiest among the flowering shrubs to grow and transplant, or to start with seed.
Of the lilac, another researcher writes, “The Puritans, uprooted first from their homes in England, then from the Netherlands, could bring with them only bits and pieces of their lives. Many chose the lilac, a living remembrance of home.” Two centuries later, pioneers from New England took seeds and slips with them of the lilac, and here in Cache Valley, the lilac broadcasts its presence and fragrance everywhere in late May and early June.
Beatrice Barker Nyman’s grandfather, John Barker, an English immigrant who walked across the Plains to this valley, planted slips of lilac around the rock home that he built in Newton in the 1870s. He also planted the hardy rose, “Harison’s Yellow” (Rosa spinosissima harisonii), pictured above right, sometimes called the “Yellow Rose of Texas.”
So common in the West that it’s often looked upon as wild, this rose was actually bred in 1830 by a rosarian named George Harison of New York. Extremely hardy, the plant can reach six feet and is well equipped to take all sorts of abuse and still cover itself with brilliant sulphur-yellow, loosely double, fragrant flowers in early summer. These familiar roses can be seen throughout the valley. There’s one standing alone in the front garden of a home on the west side of Highway 91 just north of the Smithfield sign. The rose has stayed for years in its neat bush form due to the fact that, unlike our rampant native rose, Rosa woodsii, that can eat up ten square feet in the course of a growing season, the Harison’s Yellow doesn’t form thickets. Four years ago we planted a dozen of these bushes along the edge of our hill and they’re doing beautifully with little or no attention.
Matilda and Myron Butler, settling in Cornish in the 1880s, also grew the yellow rose, along with spring’s earliest bloomer, the red and yellow Austrian Copper, Rosa feotida, ‘Bicolor’, a rose that was known as far back as 1590. This hardy plant would have been a natural to have accompanied the pioneers west – a tough and yet beautiful reminder of home. The single flowers, an intense orange-red on top and vivid yellow underneath, are truly spectacular in bloom. Used as parent stock by rose breeders, the reds and yellows of our modern varieties owe their colors to this rose.
The Butler’s house is no longer standing, but their granddaughter, Helen Buxton of Cornish, tells of a pink climbing rose that existed along one wall, a rose that sounds very much like the Eglantine, Rosa eglanteria, two blossoms of which are sketched above left. The Eglantine can reach 12 feet in this area, and was also among the plants brought across the plains by the settlers. This rose, with its one-and-a-half-inch, single pink flowers, is not so spectacular in bloom as Harison’s Yellow or Austrian Copper but is intensely fragrant at all times of the year, and is the “Sweet Briar ” spoken of in Shakespeare’s plays.
J’Lene Mendenhall and her husband found an Eglantine on their property on the east side of Highway 91 in Richmond, and thought for years that it was a wild rose. Armed with formidable thorns, persistent and thick branched, tall and spreading, the plant can be a horror in the wrong spot, and this one had taken over one side of their house including a window. The Mendenhalls have since grubbed it up and planted it farther away – not an easy task. We have one planted about sixty feet south of our front door that easily spreads over eight square feet, and even the bare stems in early spring send a captivating fragrance all the way to the porch. Though pruning the prickly thing comes close to an act of suicide, the Eglantine is a special favorite of ours.
These three roses, then, were well able to hold their own in the early days of settlement, even in the teeth of wind, cold, and heat. So would native shrubs transferred to the homestead, such as the various species of currant and hawthorn and the Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia. Native flowers were also transplanted home, such as the common Yarrow, Achillea millefolium Corn Poppy, Roemeria refracta, and Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis.
These early transplants would require a certain amount of care and watering, especially during the first and, sometimes, the second seasons. At the Barker home, their Peony, Paeonia officinalis – a plant regularly brought West during pioneer times – would have required some watering during the season. Also the Blue Bells of Scotland, Campanula rotundifolia, brought to the valley by the Butlers and planted in their Cornish garden. Even the hardy Hollyhock, Alcea rosae, and various species of Sunflower raised in these two gardens and elsewhere in the valley needed an occasional drink.
Along with the settlers themselves, many of the non-native plants and especially the peony would also require some shade during the hottest part of the day and that meant at least a couple of trees. At that point, no thought was wasted on shallow root systems that would lift future sidewalks, or clouds of cotton floating on the spring air, or asthma-inducing pollen, or whether or not a species were short-lived and shed limbs like a cat sheds hair. All the settlers needed at that time were TREES.
Trees provided by plantsmen like the Stocks family and others around the valley helped to provide a microclimate for flowers, and the fruit trees raised from seed and cuttings afforded shade as well as fruit. Later on, Midwest nurserymen would travel West each spring with sapling trees planted in moist sawdust. But during the first few years of settlement, many were the trees dug up and brought down to homesteads from surrounding foothills, mountains, and streambanks.
Matilda and Myron Butler went into the foothills west of Cornish in
the 1870s and dug up a Pine tree from that hard
soil to help shade their house, a tree that’s still standing on 5800 West
in Cornish. A picture of their house (shown at right in the 1900s)
shows a corner of the pine on the right. Hollyhocks can be seen on
the left, and a young Bridal Wreath grows close to the foundation, about
eight feet from the front steps. Below left is a picture of the pine
John Bernhisel tells of a whole row of trees – a type of cottonwood – that sprung up from a number of newly cut poles his father brought back from a canyon just above Franklin, Idaho.
In 1874, Niels Bergeson transplanted a sapling Boxelder, Acer negundo, from the eastern foothills into the ground east of the spot on which he planned to build his Lewiston house. Boxelders come in male and female varieties, the females harboring the Boxelder bugs and ending up at maturity rather contorted. The Bergeson’s tree, on the other hand, is a male with a smooth silhouette . Meant to provide shade for his wife, Olive, as she did her summer washing, the tree still stands, now having a four-foot diameter trunk and a limb spread of fifty feet.
These trees, all well into their second century, are only a sample of the thousands of trees planted in the valley, not only to help with soil erosion and to help neutralize the wind driven snow, but also for shade, comfort, beauty, a feeling of “home.” The ones still standing today are a testimony to the optimism and persistence of the pioneers who planted them, for this was long before either hoses or sprinkler systems were available or even the convenience of water piped into the house.
Matilda and Myron Butler, with the help of their children, and later their grandchildren, carried buckets up to the spring on the hill above their Cornish house for water to nurture their plantings and vegetable garden. “Water was so precious,” Helen Buxton said of her grandparents’ time, “that it was never wasted.” And the very fact that every two or three gallons of water meant carrying it downhill in a bucket, would assure that it was never wasted. The distance from the Butler house to the spring was not far, perhaps 100 yards, but as Helen Buxton said, “It was still carrying buckets of water for 100 yards.”
In 1969, one of the most telling reasons we had for buying the Bergeson property here on the edge of Cub River’s cut bank was the sight of the big Boxelder on the east side of the house. Knowing the effort Niels and Olive Bergeson put into moving it there and keeping it alive only makes the tree more precious. To have gone to such lengths as the Bergesons, Butlers, and Barkers did and all the other settlers like them to nurture a feeling of home with flowers and shrubs and trees is both impressive and inspiring. As Helen Buxton put it, “It’s a real reflection on people’s need to be surrounded by beauty.”
The Boxelder tree shown above 80 years later, in spring leaf, behind the Shaw home