Landscape Arboretum hails ten plants that changed Minnesota

Corn, Soybeans and Alfalfa among the top ranked

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

It’s no surprise that plants play a key role in the economy and environment of Minnesota, but the general public may not be well versed in the ways that these plants are important. A new education campaign wants to spread the news about how everything from corn to wild rice impacts the daily lives of our citizens.

In partnership with Extension and the U of M College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen has launched the public outreach phase of its project “Top Ten Plants That Changed Minnesota.” U of M Horticulture professor Mary Meyer leads the project.

The top ten plants are: alfalfa, American elm, apple, corn, purple loosestrife, soybeans, turfgrass/lawn, wheat, white pine and wild rice.

A panel of ten expert judges, including Minnesota Ag In The Classroom director Al Withers, met over the past three months to determine which plants would make the list.

U of M representatives had this to say about the inclusion of corn on the list: “Valued at $7 billion annually, corn covers 7.3 million acres in Minnesota, making the state fourth in U.S. production. Yields have changed from 39 bushels/acre in 1959 to 146 bushels/acre in 2007, due to cold-hardy varieties produced especially for Minnesota. U of M introductions account for nearly 200 hybrids. In 1992, TIME magazine designated hybrid seed corn as one of the most significant events that shaped our world during the past 1,000 years. Corn has more than 3,500 uses in commercial and industrial products and manufacturing processes.”

The panel of judges noted that the development of winter-hardy alfalfa in the 1860s allowed the development of the dairy industry in Minnesota, and soybeans, a crop valued at $3 billion in Minnesota, provides an incredible source of protein for use as animal feed for turkeys, poultry and other livestock industries in the state.

Crops like wheat and apples, both introduced to Minnesota in the 19th century, are among the most important farm products that go directly into food products for people. At a time when “local food” was the only option, noted public figure Horace Greeley dismissed Minnesota, saying he would never live here because you couldn’t grow apples here, the expert panel noted. Minnesotans rose to the challenge and began developing varieties that could thrive here. U of M has played a key role in developing many apple varieties and its greatest success, the Honeycrisp apple, is now grown around the world, with millions of trees planted in many different countries.

Though Minnesota ranks tenth in wheat production nationally, this crop has been a key element in the foundation of our state’s major food processing corporations.

A number of invasive species that pose risks to the environment and to plant-based industries were considered, such as Eurasian Milfoil, but the committee selected “Purple Loosestrife” an aggressive invader that originates in Eurasia, and has been known to reduce biodiversity in Minnesota wetlands and compete with Minnesota crops, made the list. A single plant can produce between two and three million seeds a year, the panel noted.

“The Top Ten Plants That Changed Minnesota” will now offer a yearlong effort to reach out through the state’s educational institutions. Curriculum materials for k-12 students, college courses and a web site geared to use by gardeners, naturalists and 4H groups will offer access to this important information. And there will even be games at the Minnesota State Fair.

“Helping everyone understand how we all benefit from these important plants is such an important effort,” said John Mages, a farmer from Belgrade, Minnesota, who serves as president for Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “Our state’s corn organizations have been key partners in developing the many value-added uses for corn, and this has resulted in a very strong rural economy and jobs that proved resistant to the economic downturn that hit the nation so hard in the past few years. Understanding agriculture’s contribution to our state will help farmers and rural communities thrive, now and into the future.”


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