Midwest Regional Reports

McCrory Gardens: A Hidden Gem in the Northern Plains

Take an insider’s look at the unique features of South Dakota’s largest botanical garden and arboretum

McCrory Gardens
An organic, open, and welcoming facility, McCrory Gardens is South Dakota State University’s botanical garden. Photos: Chris Schlenker 

McCrory Gardens, founded in 1965, features a 45-acre arboretum and 25 acres of formal gardens located on the western edge of the tallgrass prairie of the Northern Plains. It’s filled with themed gardens and plant life that can survive in our harsh climate.

cottage garden
The Cottage Garden mixes whimsy and beauty with functionality. Photo: Chris Schlenker

Among the 40,000 annuals and perennials planted each spring in the 25-acre formal gardens, there are a few unique gardens to highlight that are McCrory Gardens icons. The first is the Cottage Garden, which features a repurposed 1950s service station from Lake Preston, South Dakota, as the focal point of the quaint space. A large golden weeping willow (Salix alba ‘Tristis’, Zones 4–8) is a visitor favorite and provided the inspiration for the name of my firstborn child, Willow.

rock garden
Escape the prairie and enter an alpine plant oasis in the Rock Garden. Photo: Chris Schlenker

Another garden with several hidden gems is the 25,000-square-foot Rock Garden, which evergreens call home. Upright weeping Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Pendula Major’, Zones 3–7) and alpine plants grow among a waterfall and dwarf conifer collection. If you explore deeply enough, you’ll even come across cacti like the Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa, Zones 4–8) and succulents like hardy hens and chicks (Sempervivum spp. and cvs., Zones 4–8) claiming various nooks and crannies.

South Dakota State Arboretum
Over 240 species of trees and shrubs call the South Dakota State Arboretum home at McCrory. Photo: Chris Schlenker

If shrubs and trees are more of your thing, take a stroll through the 45-acre South Dakota State Arboretum. Showcasing the many different genera and species of woody plants capable of surviving in the Northern Plains, the arboretum also serves as a research and development site for new varieties. Among the thousands of trees and shrubs in the arboretum are a few species unique to the region. One of my favorites is Manchurian striped maple (Acer tegmentosum, Zones 4–8) on the north side of our 3-acre maple collection. As the name implies, this tree’s unique bark adds interest throughout the year, and when combined with its large shade leaves creates a perfect small tree to feature in a hosta (Hosta spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) garden.

Manchurian striped maple
Manchurian striped maple displays its green bark with white and teal highlights. Photo: Chris Schlenker

A rarely seen tree in the Northern Plains due to our Zone 4 or colder winters, Chinese wingnut (Pterocarya stenoptera, Zones 6–8) is another unique tree that is currently under observation in the arboretum for potential development and release to add diversity to our plant palette.

Chinese wingnut
The unique shape of the Chinese wingnut fruit gives it its name. Photo: Chris Schlenker

Begun in summer 2020, the arboretum is the newest host site for the American Rose Trials for Sustainability (A.R.T.S) program, which identifies through regional testing and evaluation under minimal input conditions the hardiest and most resilient rose cultivars to use in our landscapes. This is a must-see for any rose enthusiast. Look for a future regional report in which I profile some of the top-performing plants at McCrory’s other plant trials.

No matter what areas of interest you have, McCrory Gardens has something to offer every guest. Its mission is to connect people and plants through education, discovery, research, and enjoyment of the natural and built landscape. Find out more at McCroryGardens.com.

—Chris Schlenker is the head gardener of McCrory Gardens at South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota.

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