Arboretum gets a green thumbs up

by Joe Carlson

Down in Frog Hollow, a building on the University’s Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, volunteers practice making greeting cards with pressed flowers and melted crayons.
Located 25 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, the arboretum is affiliated with the Department of Horticultural Science in the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences. More than 5,000 species of plants live within the 935-acre plot of land.
Sylvia Ogren, an alumna of the Beta of Clovia sorority in St. Paul, said that although she enjoys raising funds for the arboretum by selling the cards, it is the camaraderie of the volunteers that keeps her coming back year after year.
“I like the fellowship and the support we offer each other,” she said of the 25 volunteers constructing and conversing. “As you can see, (Frog Hollow) is a very happy place.”
But the energized atmosphere contrasts sharply with the February stillness of the arboretum’s main building and trails. Although the facility is normally frequented by the general public, it is used mainly by horticulture students and cross-country skiers this time of year, said Lori Carsik, special events coordinator.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still things to do and scenery to see at the arboretum in the winter, Carsik said. “You almost have to come here every week, because it’s nature, and nature changes.”
The facility receives about 35 percent of its funding from the University, another 35 percent from private donations and the rest from admission and membership fees. It has about 50 full-time staff members who teach, conduct research and maintain the grounds and trails all year.
“Education is a really important part,” she said. “Whenever we do events, we try to have education be a part of it.” For example, visitors can sometimes go into the woods for tracking expeditions with arboretum faculty members.
Another major function of the facility is scientific research. At the arboretum, natural scientists use the facility as a “living laboratory,” Carsik said.
“Our research is principally in cold-hardiness,” which involves developing fruit and tree varieties that can withstand the cold Minnesota weather, said Peter Olin, director of the arboretum.
But the facility conducts other research as well. One project currently underway includes examining the drawbacks of methods of natural restoration.
“We’re trying to bring back the diversity in wetlands restoration,” Carsik said. Previously, wetlands were being restored by simply re-flooding dried-up areas.
“They just assumed that if they flooded the land again, (the biodiversity) would come back,” she said.
The history of the arboretum is as varied as the types of plants found within it. The University bought 80 acres of land in 1907 to create what was then called the Fruit Breeding Farm to cultivate fruit trees that could withstand harsh Minnesota winters.
In fact, the original orchards in the arboretum, which were planted in the early 1900s, played an important role in the settling of Minnesota.
“Settlers wouldn’t come here because there wasn’t any fruit,” she said. “They didn’t have the systems of trucking where you could ship in apples from New Zealand.” But more than 80 types of cold-resistant apples and berries have been developed at the research center since its inception.
In the late 1960s, the farm was renamed the Horticultural Research Center because of the expanded research carried out at the site. In the mid-1980s, the center merged with the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which is headquartered about one-half mile away.
“We’re like two different chunks of land that we’re running as one unit,” Olin said.
The partnership between the center and the arboretum has been beneficial for both parties, Carsik said. Laboratory research is carried out in the center, and then fruits of the experimentation are sown in an outdoor setting in the arboretum.
“Everything that we’ve ever produced you can see here on the grounds,” Carsik said.