Known for its popular garden displays and apple breeding, the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is branching out to protect endangered plants.

The arboretum has joined the Center for Plant Conservation, a national network of botanical institutions and gardens that are trying to conserve rare species in the wild, and to store their seeds in regional deep freezers so they don’t become extinct.

David Remucal, the arboretum’s newly hired part-time curator of endangered plants, said he hopes to build the program over the next few years. “We want to do right by Minnesota plants,” he said.

The effort will monitor rare plants in the wild in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other groups, he said. And it will study some of the endangered plants that already grow in the arboretum’s gardens.

But the greatest impetus for establishing the new program, Remucal said, is to store genetic material of rare Minnesota plants, mainly in a new freezer that keeps seeds at minus 40 degrees.

“For a lot of these plants, there may be only half a dozen populations out there anywhere,” Remucal said. “If we have a few random events that happen close together, we could lose all of them.”

The concern, he said, is that the sparse clusters of plants could be imperiled by fires, ­invasive species, excessive deer foraging or other threats. “We’d like to have the genetic material to propagate those populations in case we lose any of them,” Remucal said.

Some of the species he’ll focus on initially include the Minnesota dwarf trout lily, a dainty plant with a single white flower that occurs only in Minnesota and may become the poster plant for educational efforts. Other rare plants of interest include Western Jacob’s ladder and the Western prairie-fringed orchid.

Nancy Sather, plant ecologist and botanist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said she’s thrilled about the arboretum’s new rare-plant program because it will add a “missing link” to state efforts to protect and draw public attention to endangered plants.

Closer observation

Field biologists can find, observe and protect rare plants in the wild, she said, but an arboretum’s garden or greenhouse setting opens up other research possibilities, such as testing the genetics of seeds, and growing plants under different temperatures or other conditions to learn more about reproduction success and their tolerance for drought.

“My dream is that as the arboretum moves forward, it can become more fully capable of providing that ancillary research,” Sather said. “Our closest partner until now has been the Chicago Botanical Garden.”

200 plants on endangered list

Last week the DNR released the state’s list of endangered and threatened plants and animals — the first update in 17 years. It contains nearly 200 plants.

Sather said it’s important to conserve plants for several reasons, including their potential medicinal value, their biological importance and their links to insects, animals and fungi.

“Some people discount it, but there’s also the issue of beauty,” she said. “Beauty is the thing that engages so many members of the public that get involved and are out there with their cameras.”