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Editor’s Note: This is a full version of a story that appeared in the February/March 2021 issue of Arboretum Magazine.
By Susie Eaton Hopper, Media/PR Specialist
Arboretum members treasure the magnificent Ornamental Grass Collection on Three-Mile Drive. Now celebrating its 34th year, the grasses were born out of a passion by Mary Hockenberry Meyer, PhD, for their study, planting and preservation. Dr. Meyer retired from the University of Minnesota at the end of 2020.
Her grass obsession started at Cornell University in upstate New York, where she was studying for a master’s degree. In 1971, she was introduced to a small collection of grasses by her advisor. It was love at first sight! “No one knew much about grasses. I thought ‘someone has to write about these’,” she says. “I wanted to get out there and plant them.”
So she did. Her first project was Little Bluestem and Pennisetum in a parking lot plot in Ithaca. “They were considered weeds, a big mess,” Meyer says. “The Associated Press put out a story about it. It was fortuitous.” She then wrote a bulletin for Cornell Extension. Bit by bit, she was getting the word out. A book agent who worked with Scribner’s contacted her and she wrote a hardcover book in 1975. At the time, grasses were so new in the U.S. landscape that she scrambled to find pictures of different varieties.
While Meyer had found her calling, there were plenty of naysayers, initially. At turf conventions, Meyer would start a talk about ornamental grasses and half the room would leave. She was at a cocktail party at Cornell, standing with the president of the American Horticultural Society. Ornamental grasses were mentioned and he threw up his hands, stating “there’s nothing there!” Meyer was unfazed. “I saw the void was there in this niche area. I need to do this. I can do this,” she says, determined to educate the world about grasses.
As her efforts began to take hold, consumers started inquiring where they could get such plants. Famous landscape architects like the Oehme, van Sweden firm were using these grasses in designs for public spaces.
By the mid-80s, grasses were really catching on. Meyer came to the University of Minnesota in 1986 when her husband, Jim, was transferred for his position with Citibank in Philadelphia to Minneapolis. She planted the grass collection in 1987 with the help of then Arboretum Director Peter Olin, Harold Pellett and Donald White. At that time, there wasn’t a grass grower in Minnesota. Bailey Nursery asked for 10 grasses they could sell. With Meyer’s efforts at the forefront, grasses were about to hit the big time.
Fast forward 33 years and Meyer and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, along with many horticulturalists, volunteers and students, have 12 incredible beds and the best grass collection in the country. “No other U.S. botanical garden has one,” Meyer says. “I couldn’t have a better place to have this collection where the public can see it, commercial growers can see it.”
Her efforts, along with those of forward-thinking nurseries and landscape designers have put ornamental grasses on the map – now a $158 million dollar industry (latest figures from 2014). Through this journey, Meyer has become a revered professor at the U of M; cold-climate researcher; Program Leader in Horticulture with University of Minnesota Extension; leader of national societies and programs; book author; interim Director of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and so much more. “You can’t find someone more knowledgeable than Mary,” says frequent Extension collaborator Julie Weisenhorn, who also was Meyer’s grad student. “She always goes deeper and is so innovative. She’s so supportive, always looking ahead.”
Though Dr. Meyer is now emeritus, she will continue to curate her beloved Ornamental Grass Collection at the Arboretum. She will also have more time for her husband, two daughters and four grandchildren.
Don’t be surprised if the next time you visit the grasses, you see Meyer, rake in hand, tending to her garden. Thank you, Mary Meyer!
Mary Meyer’s Career Accomplishments
*Founding member of the National Consumer Horticulture Committee, NICH.
*1994-2007: Director of the University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener program.
*2008-2010: Interim Director of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
*2012: Organized the National Grass Trials program with sites in 11 states and 17 sites using 22 cultivars of native switchgrass and little bluestem.
*2012: The Grasses Collection was awarded North American Plant Collection or Plant Collection Network status by the American Public Garden Association.
*2013-14: President, American Society of Horticultural Science.
*2013-2016: Co-chair of steering committee that founded the national Seed Your Future, SYF, initiative to promote horticulture careers and currently is on the Advisory Council for SYF.
*2017: Co-authored with Susan Davis Price, the Minnesota Historical Society Press book The 10 Plants That Changed Minnesota. U of M CFANS awarded it Norman Borlaug book of the year for 2017.
Mary Meyer’s Reasons You Should Grow Ornamental Grasses
EASY TO GROW: No disease or pest issues. They are perennial, sustainable and don’t take a lot of water. They are almost maintenance free.
SCALE AND MOVEMENT: Grasses make a statement, most are vertical, so they create an exclamation point in the landscape. They wave in the slightest breeze.
VERSATILITY: They come in many different sizes, textures and colors and can be planted individually or in patterns or in masses.
NATURAL APPEARANCE: Grasses change with the seasons and are beautiful year-round, they provide architecture in the garden all winter.
GROW GREAT IN THE NORTH: There are some that grow better here than anywhere else. They do very well in our cold environment.
GROW WELL IN DIFFICULT SPOTS: They have great root systems and can flourish where other plants fail.
ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS: They serve as a food source for a wide variety of native butterfly and moth species.
Mary Meyer’s Favorite Growers
Intrinsic Perennial Gardens, intrinsicperennialgardens.com
Walters Gardens, waltersgardens.com
Hoffman Nursery, hoffmannursery.com