Minnesota's most influential plants? Arboretum wants input

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum wants you to nominate your pick for the "10 Plants That Changed Minnesota."

The new initiative, which will include education at K-12 and college levels, is led by Mary Meyer, a professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota. Tom Crann of All Things Considered spoke to Meyer about the initiative on Wednesday.

An edited transcript of that discussion is below.

Tom Crann: This idea of an influential plant, or a plant that changed Minnesota in some way — give us an idea of what makes a plant influential?

Mary Meyer: People can really nominate any kind of plant, we're talking about a food crop, we're talking about native plant, grasses that were in our prairie, trees that were in the forest, even plants that have influenced pop culture. How about the lady slipper, that's our state flower.

Anything goes here, we're encouraging people to discuss this, think about it, make a case for your favorite plant. Anything goes as long as it's a plant.

Crann: And not just big cash crops, we're not just talking about those?

Meyer: Right. Economists would like to think this is about money but life is about more than money, it's about plants.

Crann: Here in the state of Minnesota, what has made a plant influential historically? And give us some examples from around the state.

Meyer: We have great diversity in our three different vegetative regions or biomes. The prairie that's in the west, especially the northwest. The Red River Valley, that's where the bonanza wheat farms were. And that's really not a myth, those things really existed, those huge farms with wheat, and now sugar beets, are up there.

Up in the Arrowhead we have the coniferous forest and the white pines. The massive white pines were used in Europe even before we were a state. Our white pines were famous.

Down in the southwestern part of the state we have the maple [and] basswood forest. ... But maple trees are the source of maple syrup, that's one of our first crops to come out of the state. We have great diversity in Minnesota.

Unfortunately, we have a cold climate, which does limit what we can grow. But that has really been a challenge for a lot of people, and many people have sought to overcome that, thus we have a great diversity of plants.

Crann: How have people, if you will, and plants and species, risen to the challenge of the cold climate here?

Meyer: The first challenge was you can't grow apples in Minnesota. People really sought to make that a reality that they could indeed grow apples, and the Harelson apples came about.

And now Honeycrisp, one of the most popular apples in the world... really originated in Minnesota. That's really taking adversity and saying, 'Hey we can do something about this.' And I think the idea of what plants really make a difference, people will think about this from a historical perspective, as well as today, what plants are causing us issues and problems.

And I also really want to raise environmental awareness of what's happened to plants. We have obliterated some our most famous plants. White pine really was harvested in massive amounts.

And if you read the historical accounts, people talk about, 'We will never use up the resources we have in the forest with white pine,' and in just a few decades, it disappeared.

Crann: If you had to submit your nomination, I'm going to put you on the spot here, what would you nominate?

Meyer: That's easy, one of my favorite plants is little blue stem. It's done a wonderful job building soils, we still grow it in the prairie, and there's an ornamental form I released from the University of Minnesota, so it's got to be my favorite.

Nominate a favorite plant

Interview transcribed by Jon Collins, MPR reporter.