Umebe Onyejekwe was delighted to find ewedu — a leafy green also known as jute leaf or molokhia — growing at the University of Minnesota's research fields in St. Paul. The green is commonly used in the cooking of her native Nigeria, but she didn't know it could grow in Minnesota, where she's lived for the past 13 years.

Being able to grow West African produce here, she said, would be a pleasure for older immigrants and help them save money on trips to specialty markets in other parts of the United States. "It will be cheaper for us," Onyejekwe said.

That's the goal of the U's Community Plant Breeding Team, a group of graduate students with the Plant Breeding Center and Extension service. They are partnering with immigrant master gardeners to experiment with staple crops from around the world.

"We are trying to see which plants can be adapted to Minnesota," said Isaías Ariza, a Ph.D. student at the university who volunteers with the group.

The Plant Breeding Team and Hennepin County Master Gardeners hosted an open house this month to share their knowledge, take questions, learn from members of the African diaspora in Minnesota, and enjoy a meal prepared using plants grown on site.

Attendees sampled vegetables like African basil, African eggplant, amaranth, bitter leaf and waterleaf. They were able to take home with them seed packets along with information on growing crops written in English, Spanish and Swahili.

Some plants, like Ethiopian cabbage and spiderwisp — also known as chinsaga — have done well here. Others, like sugarcane and pineapple, struggle.

"We probably grew the first sugarcane in Minnesota," Ariza said, adding with a laugh that it didn't really work.

Rex Bernardo, a U professor who holds an endowed chair in corn breeding and genetics, leads the group. A native of the Philippines, Bernardo said he likes to do two things when he goes home: visit his parents and eat the produce he grew up with.

"That's a powerful tug that reminds you of home," he said.

Bernardo was inspired by stories he heard from people in Minnesota's African community, who told him they would travel to places like Seattle just to buy produce traditional to their native regions. The U's Plant Breeding Center wanted to know more.

"We started with basically zero knowledge," Bernardo said.

The science is exciting for Bernardo and his research group. But he said the students are also learning how to reach people in the community, and exchanging knowledge with farmers from other cultures.

The group focuses on leafy vegetables, which in general do well here. The challenge for varieties native to Africa is that Minnesota's growing season is much shorter. The plants grow well, but may struggle to flower and seed before the weather cools.

Three species that seem to be successful here are jute mallow, spiderwisp, and Ethiopian cabbage, Bernando said.

Natalie Hoidal, a vegetable specialist with University of Minnesota Extension, said the biggest barrier for African farmers in Minnesota is access to seed. Having seeds available in Minnesota can prevent people from getting in trouble for bringing seeds in from abroad. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has strict regulations on agricultural products entering the country, and will arrest and cite people who carry undeclared seeds.

Trying to grow plant species from other parts of the world in Minnesota "can be a lot of money for a lot of failure," Hoidal said. But those with the Plant Breeding Center are willing to undertake the risk of trial and error to develop information on what plants can do well here.

Vitalis Tita, a farmer who grew up in Cameroon and raises African crops on his land in Montrose and Otsego, visited the U's fields to see how the research team was doing. He grows cassava, a tuber plant similar to yuca, but can't get the actual tuber to develop by the end of the growing season. People buy and eat the plant's leaves as well, but he'd like to develop it fully, which may require a greenhouse, he said.

Tita, who grows waterleaf and bitter leaf, was impressed with the U's bitter leaf variety, which he said has a green stem that delivers the deep bitterness craved by many African immigrants. He said he hopes the U's research will help him and others learn how to extend the growing season to make more species thrive.

Tita's crops are sought after. He sells his produce on trips to Madison, Wis., and Chicago, and fields calls from all over the country seeking a taste of home. He will often blanch and freeze vegetables for customers who are far away.

"There's a high, high demand for it," he said.