State symbols are part of what makes Minnesota home
The authors of the News Tribune's Ask a Master Gardener column bring you fun facts about Minnesota’s state symbols.
An editor at the News Tribune was surprised recently to discover that Minnesota has a state bee. She made the mistake of asking me about it. If asked, I tend to go on about bees until people start edging away from me. Perhaps to change the subject, she asked whether master gardeners might like to write about other state symbols that have some connection to horticulture.
So we master gardeners set off to research state symbols. We discovered that we owe several of them to enterprising elementary school children who petitioned the legislature to adopt them. Other state symbols have their origin in groups of enthusiasts with keen interest in things like mushrooms or soil. And we discovered that Minnesota is on the cutting edge when it comes to state symbols. It’s one of only three states with an official state muffin, and one of only two with a state mushroom. More than a dozen states have adopted the honey bee as their state insect — even though the honey bee isn’t even native to North America — but Minnesota is the only state that has adopted a native bumblebee as a state symbol.
Ah, I see I’m talking about bees again. Okay, on to the symbols:
By Gary Kruchowski
Minnesota has not recognized an official state berry, but the blueberry is honored to be the key ingredient in Minnesota’s state muffin. The blueberry muffin became a state symbol in 1988 in response to a proposal from third-grade students from South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton. The students were inspired by Massachusetts students who had lobbied for the corn muffin in their state. The Carlton students brought their idea to St. Paul arguing that wild blueberries were common in northern Minnesota and delicious, and that Minnesota’s farmers produced another key ingredient, flour.
The students’ proposal gained widespread support in the region and was sponsored by local legislators, Representative Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown) and Senator Florian Chmielewski (DFL-Sturgeon Lake).
The students’ campaign concluded with a field trip to the capitol where they demonstrated their political skills by distributing blueberry muffins to the legislators. The result of the taste test was a standing ovation from members of the House of Representatives and passage of the bill. Governor Rudy Perpich of Hibbing signed the bill into law on April 27, 1988.
While the blueberry muffin won the bipartisan support of lawmakers, there is still no official recipe.
By Gary Kruchowski
Students at O. H. Anderson Elementary School in Mahtomedi were studying monarch butterflies when State Representative Harry Mares (R-White Bear Lake) visited a fourth-grade class in 1999 to explain how proposals become law in Minnesota. Inspired by a monarch curriculum developed by the University of Minnesota and their new understanding of lawmaking, the students decided to combine the two lessons and pursue state-symbol status for the monarch.
The students testified at a House committee meeting, highlighting how studying monarchs encourages interest in science, ecology and geography. Mares was quoted in Session Weekly saying: “A lot of people have an early introduction to the magical world of nature through the monarch, and as we get older it becomes a thread that takes us through science to beauty and aesthetics.” Representative Mares and Senator Charles Wiger (DFL-North St. Paul) sponsored the measure, which was signed into law by Governor Ventura (I) on March 31, 2000.
While monarchs are currently threatened by a variety of environmental factors, they are still a common sight across Minnesota. Each year, four generations of monarchs are born in Minnesota before the last generation migrates to a location in central Mexico. Because monarchs require milkweed to survive, Minnesotans are encouraged to plant milkweed to ensure survival of this colorful state symbol.
Showy lady’s slipper
By Linda Harper
Well, excuse me for saying, but the Minnesota State Flower originated out of a “slipper”-y past. Back in 1893, the state’s Women’s Auxiliary to the Chicago World’s Fair wanted to display flowers at the fair that represented Minnesota, and they petitioned to have the wild lady’s slipper become our state flower. The legislature passed a bill making the lady’s slipper the state flower, but there was a problem. The flower they named, C ypripedium calceolus, did not grow in Minnesota.
In 1902, women from the St. Anthony Study Circle of Minneapolis pointed out the error, and the Minneapolis Tribune ran an article with the headline “State Flower Called ‘Fake.’” Shortly thereafter, the legislature named a different lady’s slipper, C ypripedium reginae, as our official state flower. The Cypripedium reginae is commonly known as the showy lady’s slipper or pink-and-white lady’s slipper, and it does grow here, although it is quite rare. In 1925, the legislature passed a law prohibiting picking or digging up the state flower.
The state flag also contained a lady’s slipper error for many years. The flag adopted in 1893 depicted a white lady’s slipper that does not grow here. It wasn’t corrected until 1957.
Some other interesting facts about our state flower: It is a part of the orchid family, being one of 43 orchid species in Minnesota. They grow slowly and can take 4 to 16 years to produce their first flower. They can live an average of 50 years, but some may live as long as 100 years. They can grow to be over 4 feet tall, but most commonly are 1-2 feet tall.
It is truly a magical moment when you are out in nature to come across our beautiful state flower.
By Kathy Hannan
Wild rice is Minnesota’s state grain, although it’s arguably not a grain and certainly isn’t rice; it’s an aquatic grass. Northern wild rice, Zizania aquatica , is native to the Great Lakes region and has been part of the human diet since prehistoric times. It is a nutritional powerhouse, high in protein and carbohydrates and low in fat.
Accounts of explorers, fur traders and government agents from the early 1600s to the late 1800s described Native people harvesting wild rice in the traditional way using poles from a canoe. Europeans traded with Native people for wild rice and depended on it as a nutritious food that they could store for long periods of time.
Despite the close association of the Anishinaabe and wild rice today, indigenous use of this food predates their arrival in the Lake Superior region. The Anishinaabe migration story tells of a prophet who told the people to go west to a place where food grows on water; this journey ended in the Lake Superior wild rice country when they encountered the plant. They called wild rice manoomin, meaning "good berry."
Minnesota has more acres of natural wild rice than any other state, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. A DNR report to the legislature says that wild rice is “one of the most important foods for waterfowl in North America” and provides habitat for other wildlife, too.
The legislature designated it our state grain in 1977.
The more we come to appreciate wild rice, the less likely we are to repeat my father-in-law's Christmas mistake, when he called to say my box had arrived but the jar of rice had spoiled and turned brown during shipping and had to be thrown out. A teachable moment, for sure.
By Christina Zierman
Morels are one of the most recognized and sought-after edible mushrooms because of their scrumptious flavor. They’re more prevalent in southeastern Minnesota, but determined mushroom hunters find them in our region, too.
In 1983, a member of the Minnesota Mycological Society proposed making them our state mushroom, and the legislature made it official in 1984. Minnesota and Oregon are the only states with state mushrooms (theirs is the Pacific golden chanterelle).
The morel can be either yellow or black with a cap that is pitted, is uniform in shape and resembles a sponge. They can be 2 to 6 inches in length.
They are the first wild mushrooms to emerge in the spring after an adequate rainfall. In southern Minnesota, the growing season is typically from late April through May. In the northern part of the state, the season can go through June. Morels can be found growing under and around decaying elm, ash, poplar and apple trees.
If you decide to hunt for the morel, keep in mind that there is also a false morel that can be poisonous. The false morel has an irregular shaped cap that is more lobed and wavy in appearance. The stem of the false morel is filled with cotton-like fibers, while true morels have hollow stems. Be sure to positively identify any mushroom you plan to consume and remember the axiom: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
By Deb Scott
In March of 2006, members of a fifth-grade class from a Bayport elementary school testified at the state legislature in favor of making the Honeycrisp the state apple. The Star Tribune reported that they sang lawmakers a song to the tune of the Minnesota rouser:
"Apples, apples, we love apples, Honeycrisp apple … for our state fruit!"
It is an apple worth singing about. It arguably possesses all of the best qualities we seek in an apple intended for eating: crisp, juicy, simultaneously sweet and tart — and it keeps well.
University of Minnesota researchers sought to produce a winter-hardy tree that produced great-tasting apples. A hybrid of the Macoun and Honeygold apples, the Honeycrisp was developed in 1960, with the first seedling planted in 1962.
This apple has become popular with small- to medium-size orchards and has been credited with reinvigorating the apple industry. It is hardy in USDA zone 4 (where winter temperatures get down to 30 below). Given its ability to keep for six to seven months with proper refrigeration, combined with its great flavor, it is no wonder that this Minnesota gem can now be found growing as far away as Nova Scotia and New Zealand. In Europe, it is known as the Honeycrunch.
By Deb Scott
The red pine is a Minnesota native — it doesn’t come from Norway — and there’s debate about how it came to be called the Norway Pine. The 1953 resolution naming it the state tree calls it “a sturdy and majestic tree” whose harvest “helped lay the foundation for much of the wealth of the State of Minnesota.”
We’re on the western edge of the tree’s native range. It grows as far north as Manitoba and Canada’s maritime provinces and as far south as Pennsylvania and the mountains of West Virginia. Its most distinguishing features are red, scaly bark on mature trees, paired 4- to 6-inch-long needles, and foliage that resembles a foxtail.
Much stronger than the white pine, the Norway pine is valued by the construction and mining industries for structural timber. It is also used for pulpwood, and its porous structure readily absorbs preservatives to make long-lasting railroad ties. Recorded oral histories indicate the tree’s use by indigenous peoples throughout northern Minnesota to treat wounds and stomach pains.
Norway pines grow to be 60 to 100 feet tall and can live to be 400 years old. The tree’s use by the region’s people and industries, past and present, make it a worthy recipient of state tree designation.
By Catherine Winter
Yes, Minnesota has a state soil. There was plenty of joking around when it became the state soil back in 2012. Columnist James Lileks wrote that lawmakers had named a state soil “just to show they could do it if they wanted to.” Its sponsor, Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista), told the Star Tribune, "I told people that if I didn't get this passed, my name would be mud."
But to us master gardeners, soil is serious business. We’re always advising people to get their soil tested — it’s cheap and easy! — before planting things in it or adding fertilizer or other amendments. And our state soil is good for growing things in. It’s built from a combination of glacial activity and decaying plant matter, making it rich and productive. Sadly, it has nothing to do with Lester Park or the Lester River, so we can’t have hometown pride about it. It’s named for one of the locations in which it is found, Lester Prairie.
Instructions for having your soil tested ($17) can be found here: soiltest.cfans.umn.edu/testing-services/lawn-garden .
By Catherine Winter
The state bee is our newest symbol, adopted only last year.
Until very recently, the rusty-patched bumblebee was common in our region and throughout the northeast. But its population has dropped precipitously. This year, when volunteers from the Minnesota Bee Atlas fanned out across the state to capture and identify bumblebees, there was great excitement when one person captured a rusty-patched bumblebee in Carlton County.
That volunteer was me. Every summer, a partner and I participate in this citizen science project. We catch bumblebees in specimen cups, chill them in a cooler until they are calm enough to be photographed, try to ID them, and send photos to experts in St. Paul. (We let the bees go once they’ve posed for pictures.) Our route is near Cromwell, and the rusty-patched bumblebee hadn’t been seen there for decades.
The rusty-patched bumblebee was the first bee in the continental United States to be declared endangered. Experts believe its population crash is being caused by a deadly combination of disease, habitat loss and pesticides. It was placed on the federal Endangered Species List in 2017.
Bumblebees and other wild bees provide important pollination services to many crops, such as apples, tomatoes and blueberries, as well as to wildflowers. Without bees, we’d lose our most delicious and nutritious foods — as well as coffee and chocolate. So there’s good reason to celebrate our state bee and work to keep it and other pollinators from vanishing.
Written by U of M Extension Master Gardeners in St. Louis County. Send your questions to email@example.com.