The University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has thousands of plants, but it's looking for help to identify the Top Ten.

The arboretum has launched a "10 Plants that Changed Minnesota" contest, and it's inviting the public to submit suggestions.

Horticulturists will use the list later this year to develop a freshman seminar, a public lecture series, hands-on activities and educational programs for K-12 students.

Leading the effort is University of Minnesota Horticulture professor Mary Meyer, who said the purpose of the Top Ten list is to build awareness of the crucial role plants play in the world.

She got the idea from reading a book published last year called "50 Plants that Changed the Course of History" across the globe. It made her wonder which plants might have played a special role for Minnesota, she said.

So far, a few hundred people have nominated plants online. Some have suggested only one or two, but others have submitted a full list of 10.

"It's really wide open," as far as what names can be suggested, Meyer said.

For some, it may be the succulent Honeycrisp apple, developed at the U's Horticultural Research Center and grown in several countries.

Others might nominate wheat, which played a huge role in the founding of Minneapolis and many communities. Still others might look to corn or soybeans that dominate much farmland today, and that are used in hundreds of food and non-food products.

"Wild rice is one of the plants that many people have mentioned right off the bat," said Meyer. "If we select it, I'm sure we'll invite some native Americans to talk about how it was part of their heritage and rhythm of life."

Meyer said nominations don't have to be foods -- they could include such difficult-to-find plants as the showy lady's slipper, Minnesota's state flower, or prairie plants that dominated the landscape in pioneer times, or trees such as the white pine that once covered much of northern Minnesota.

Entries can be submitted online, in person at the arboretum, or by mail. The deadline is April 15. A committee of about 12 representing different fields at the U and elsewhere make the decisions in early June, Meyer said.

Popularity will play a role in the Top Ten list, she said, but experts also will weigh other factors, including cultural influence, historic importance and economic significance. "I hope there will be at least a couple of surprises," she said.

Meyer said she received two e-mails mentioning Grimm alfalfa, a cold-hearty variety was named after the homesteader who brought it here.

She said there is a separate contest for K-8 schools and clubs, and the arboretum will develop K-12 educational materials, online games and perhaps trading cards from the Top Ten list.

Meyer is developing a freshman seminar at the arboretum for this fall, which she said will focus on the environmental aspects of the 10 plants, particularly those that have dramatically changed the landscape.

Logging so many red and white pine literally changed the composition of forests of northern Minnesota, she said, and agriculture transformed the prairies. "It's all agronomic crops now, and that's wonderful," Meyer said. "But it certainly has changed the landscape and changed the soil, and how we manage and care for the soil today."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388