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For the love of plants: 150 years of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society

Members taught each other, and the public, how to use plants to enhance their environments.

Attendees at a December annual meeting in the Minnesota State Horticultural Society’s early years, ca. 1890s.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, Roseville, MN

The year 2016 marked the 150th anniversary of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society. In its early years, the society was a small, male-dominated organization focused on fruit production. Its mission shifted to become more educational as members taught each other, and the public, how to use plants to enhance their environments.

In 1866, John Harris from La Crescent displayed twenty varieties of apples at the Minnesota State Fair, held in Rochester. His successful apple crop followed many attempts by growers to develop hardy apples and other fruit that would survive the state’s harsh winter.

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During the fair, the growers formed the Minnesota Fruit Growers Association. They set one-dollar annual membership dues and elected D. A. Robertson of St. Paul as their president. The organization’s name changed to the Minnesota Horticultural Society in 1868. Gradually, the society’s focus began to evolve from fruit to broader horticultural interests.

In 1873, the organization’s name changed again to the Minnesota State Horticultural Society (MSHS). With legislative funding, MSHS began publishing the Minnesota Horticulturist in 1894. In 2000, the magazine’s name changed to the Northern Gardener, and it became the longest-published magazine in Minnesota.

Topics of discussion during the early years were much the same as they are 150 years later. Members met to talk about soils, mulches, frost and winter damage to crops, varieties grown, pruning, crop yields, wind protection, and grafting. At an 1886 convention, one discussion focused on the challenging climate of Minnesota, with its temperature variation of 139 degrees. One speaker pointed out its similarity to that of central Russia, where a variety of apples and other fruit were successfully grown.

Early in its history, MSHS collaborated with the state legislature and emergent University of Minnesota to develop and promote horticulture throughout the state. In 1878, the legislature provided $2,000 to purchase 116 acres for growing hardy hybrid apple and other fruit trees. In 1907, the legislature appropriated $16,000 to purchase a fruit-breeding farm for the University of Minnesota with the approval and ongoing oversight of MSHS.

A 1915 brochure listed the following benefits of MSHS membership. They included a 536 page-book titled Trees, Fruits, and Flowers of Minnesota and a forty-page monthly copy of the Minnesota Horticulturist. Members also received several new fruit trees or plants every year. At the time, a lifetime membership was ten dollars.

The annual plant membership benefit continued until 1948, when the mailing costs incurred by sending plants to thousands of members ended the program. Over the years, the program aided in expanding membership and testing new plant varieties in all areas and hardiness zones of the state.

In the 1920s, MSHS membership grew to include amateur gardeners and garden societies. By 1959, it grew to 11,486 individuals and over 450 societies. These included florists; greenhouse, vegetable, and fruit growers; nurserymen; and homeowners.

World War II prompted the government and MSHS to promote victory gardens to grow vegetables in home gardens to help address local food shortages and malnutrition. In 1942, an article by E. M. Hunt in the Minnesota Horticulturist reported that the government asked Minnesota citizens to plant 194,900 home gardens, an increase of 34,000 from the prior year.

In 1955, an increased interest in ornamental plant material led the Society to help raise funds for an arboretum. In 1958, the Society’s donation of 160 acres and $25,000 to the University of Minnesota, along with a promise of on-going support, contributed to the development of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska.

Since 1989, the Minnesota Green program has coordinated donations of plant materials and tools to support a variety of community projects, including vegetable gardens and efforts to beautify public spaces.

In 2008, the Garden-in-a-Box program began supplying garden kits, knowledge, and resources to communities so that low-income families and children could learn how to grow vegetables in a raised bed.

In addition to the community programs, the Society offers classes and participates in home and garden shows. It also exhibits at the Minnesota State Fair, trains flower show judges, provides speakers on horticulture-related topics, and offers travel tours. Through the years, the society’s focus changed as the population became more urban and interests expanded to growing vegetables, lawns, shrubs, native plants, pollinators, and organic crops.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.