If you've been stumbling around in a fog for a few years, wondering which of all the plants in Minnesota is the most influential, you can relax: The University of Minnesota has settled the matter with a top 10 list. Potatoes are included. You may think, "Rarely have I been influenced by a potato. Seduced, perhaps. Intrigued, well, it goes without saying. But are they really influential?"
Let us clarify. The list looks at the impact of a plant six ways: environmental, economic, cultural, historical, food-wise and how it affects the landscape. Some surprises: There's "purple loosestrife," that pretty tall thing with purple flowers, to use the technical terms; it can be used to treat diarrhea, which might explain its name. The apple is self-explanatory, since Minnesota is famous for inventing new apples like the sweet Honeycrisp, or the less-successful Ultra-Puckertart, which caused the inside of your cheeks to slam together while you chewed. "America's most painful new fruit," I believe the reviews said.
Elm trees made the list, even though beetles have reduced their population to about 26 old and nervous trees that panic and think, "Beetles!" every time they get that gnawing sensation in the bark. This is a major flaw in evolution: Elms are unable to run away from predators. Fifty limbs and they can't scratch. I'm not saying it would be better if elms could run down the street flailing at their trunks and screeching, GET OFF OF ME, but it would be interesting. If we're going to lose our elms I'd rather they'd all left en masse in the 1970s, a great herd of trees heading for beetle-free territory. Highways would have signs to this day: ELM CROSSING.
Anyway. Sugar beets were nominated but didn't make the list. As someone who once lived downwind from a beet processing facility, I don't think the experts really understand the impact of the sugar beet. When the wind's right, you're convinced Paul Bunyan had the stomach flu. We took a tour of the plant for school, and three kids relinquished their lunch; the rest had to be hustled out before a chain reaction shut down the plant for the week.
Also not on the list: Eurasian milfoil, which hitches rides on motorboat propellers and never once offers to chip in for gas; the spurge, which is an ugly lawn weed deserving of poison unless a landscaper calls it "ground cover," in which case you pay him $500 to plant it; the Como Park corpse plant, which blooms once a year, and releases an unutterably vile aroma that melts glass. I'm still wondering how it got its name. "Hey, that smells like a dead body" is not a frame of reference most of us have. If you're standing next to a guy in the corpse plant exhibit and he says, "Whoa, that takes me back to my wild, misspent youth," I'd edge away.
Anything missing in these accounts of influential nonsentient organic material? Anything that has shaped our culture, our emotions, led to bitter disputes, engaged the attention of science?
C'mon! The dandelion.
It's the mooching house-guest of the plant world. It makes a nice impression when it shows up -- hey, it's me, I brought you some yellow color! Can I crash for a while? Then it turns into a layabout that loses its hue and ends up a dumb ugly stalk with nasty leaves. When the seeds are gone and the plant is just a varicose vein standing erect with a stump on top, you want to teach it a lesson: This is why you will never be a flower. If you would stay yellow, it would be different. FOCUS.
But that's not the dandelion way, man. They're all about hanging out and passing through. Yes, I know, people eat them, in other cultures. But that is because they lack steak and Fritos. Once you invent Fritos, dandelion demand drops off. It can be used to make wine, but the recipe calls for lemon juice, lime juice, orange juice and six cups of sugar; with those ingredients you could make a palatable intoxicant out of minced carpet remnants or ground-up newspapers. (Use seven cups of sugar if you're including the opinion section; cuts the bitterness.)
So why didn't it make the list? Probably got its application in too late. Hey, dude, it meant to send it in, but stuff happened. Typical.