These 10 plants changed Minnesota forever

ST. PAUL -- Top 10 list: Most important Minnesota plants. Ever. Go. There's a new book out that takes a stab at it. "Ten Plants That Changed Minnesota" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $29.95) takes its list from a 2012 conference of experts ...

Book cover for "Ten Plants that Changed Minnesota" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $29.95). The book takes its list from a 2012 conference of experts convened by the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Courtesy photo / St. Paul Pioneer Press
Minnesota is the third-largest soybean-producing state, which is why soybeans made it on the list of "Ten Plants That Changed Minnesota". Courtesy photo / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL - Top 10 list: Most important Minnesota plants. Ever. Go.

There's a new book out that takes a stab at it.

"Ten Plants That Changed Minnesota" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $29.95) takes its list from a 2012 conference of experts convened by the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. University of Minnesota professor of horticultural science Mary Hockenberry Meyer and award-winning author Susan Davis Price break down the list.

Making the list was based on each plant's impact-for better or worse-in six areas: environmental; economic or industrial; cultural/spiritual; historical; sustenance; and landscape.



"It's like the restrained, subdued classmate beside its flashy, noticeable kids (corn and soybeans)," Meyer and Price write. "Alfalfa made Minnesota's dairy industry possible." So, farm cooperatives like Land O' Lakes and Cenex owe much to alfalfa.

Environmentalists tend to favor the perennial legume because it adds nitrogen into the soil and its roots reduce erosion. Bees dig it, too.

Cool fact: Alfalfa can grow roots 49 feet long.

American elm

What Main Street in Minnesota wasn't shaded by rows of elms? On a hot summer day, a realm of elmshade can be a refuge. They shaped our neighborhoods and parks, and provided habitat for caterpillars, moths and butterflies.

Of course, they're mostly gone now, casualties of Dutch elm disease. But research has shown promise, and there's "The St. Croix Elm," a stately tree in Afton that's shown resistance.

Cool fact: Back in the day, hockey sticks were often made of elm because they would bend without splitting.



It's more than just the Honeycrisp. In 1860, Horace Greeley stated: "I would not live in Minnesota because you can't grow apples there!"

Eight years later the Wealthy apple came to market here. The Haralson, Zestar! and SweeTango are among 26 apples introduced by the University of Minnesota. We can - and do - grow apples here.

Cool fact: About 50 apple leaves are needed for each apple.


Some might not realize what a corn giant Minnesota is. The state is usually in the top five corn-producing states, and in 2014, the Minnesota corn crop from 25,000 farms was valued at $4.7 billion. Much of it fuels ethanol production and feeds livestock.

Corn has also transformed Minnesota's landscape and led to a new wave of environmental concerns from the consequences of that transformation, as well as health and food ethics concerns over our reliance on it.

Cool fact: 75 percent of all grocery store items contain some form of corn.



If you're not in a sea of corn or a stand of trees, chances are you're surrounded by a carpet of turfgrass. Remember that much of the state was once tallgrass prairie. Then we built homes.

But we didn't have the maintenance-heavy lawns of today until the last century. Before that, we didn't even mow our lawns. Meyer and Price document how and why that changed nationally and in Minnesota.

Cool fact: The fragrance of cut grass makes us feel happy and relaxed.

"Ten Plants that Changed Minnesota" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $29.95). Courtesy photo / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Purple loosestrife

Yes, it's a noxious invasive plant that has invaded our fields and wetlands, choking out native plants and destroying frog and turtle nesting areas. Its entry into Minnesota primed the state for dealing with invasive species-a struggle that continues today.

Thanks to our expensive battle with purple loosestrife, we know that many invasives can be controlled-with enough science, money and commitment.

Cool fact: Honeybees love the stuff and make a yummy honey from it.


Minnesota is the third-largest soybean-producing state. That's not by accident. University of Minnesota researcher Jean W. Lambert developed 18 soybean varieties adapted to Minnesota's climates and soils.

The impact on Minnesota can't be understated. Perhaps you've heard of Archer Daniels Midland (founded in Minneapolis) and Cargill (headquartered in Minnetonka).

Cool fact: One acre of soybeans can be made into 82,368 crayons.


The first large monocultural grain crop in Minnesota, wheat built Minneapolis. "Mill City." General Mills. Pillsbury. Need we say more?

Cool fact: Wheat contains more protein than corn.

White pine

Where oak didn't flourish, white pines often did after the last Ice Age, creating northern Minnesota as we know it. When European descendants moved into Minnesota in large numbers in the 1800s, New England and much of the Northeast had been logged out but northern Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin had what seemed at the time to be inexhaustible stands of mostly white pine.

The St. Croix and Mississippi rivers became the highways of a logging economy that built a nation's wooden infrastructure.

Cool fact: In 1900, Minnesota produced enough wood-2.3 billion board feet-to build a 9-foot-wide boardwalk encircling the earth.

Wild rice

The first people who lived here-Ojibwe Indians-settled the land based on locations of wild rice, which grows in clean, shallow freshwater in the Great Lakes region. Lumberjacks ate it for breakfast.

Today, Minnesota produces more than half of the world's hand-harvested rice. It's also the only native, non-GMO edible plant on this list.

Cool fact: You can pop wild rice, just like popcorn. Heat in a little oil and shake until it pops.

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