By Sonjie Johnson
“Why is that plant looking sick? Why is that tree wilting?”
Most people, like the author, would walk by without noticing these symptoms of stress or disease. Not Pat and Todd Burnes.
Thirty-five-year Como Park residents, the Burnes worked, met and retired from the University of Minnesota Plant Pathology Department. An avid outdoors couple, they are often seen walking or biking the Como Park paths. That’s where we met and I learned that Pat and Todd are horticulturists.
As a professor, Todd used the diverse ecology of Como Lake to collect diseased plant and fungal samples for students to perform microscopic examinations in class. His own research focused on tree diseases and wood decay fungi. As a plant pathologist and researcher, Pat studied fungi, fungus and the ways in which it impacts crops like soybeans and corn. They also both studied tree diseases like Dutch elm and Ash Borer at the University of Minnesota Forestry Department.
When I asked him to tell me more about the field, Todd pointed out that plant pathology has repeatedly changed the course of history. Thousands of years ago, early humans identified viable plants by trial and error. Learning which plants would thrive under what conditions led nomadic tribes to form communities. In the mid-1800s, more than a million people immigrated to the United States from Ireland because of a famine caused by potato blight.
In the 1970s, Dutch elm disease, an invasive fungal, changed the Twin Cities’ urban landscape by killing thousands of mature elms that sheltered boulevards, in back yards, parks and the Minnesota State Fair grounds.
Todd remarks that “vegetables and flowers we grow in our gardens are susceptible to different diseases.” This statement leads me to ask about my tomatoes (and the lack thereof). “Tomatoes have a lot of problems,” Pat quips. “Soil blight can affect shrubs,
plants and crops. Tomato blight is often caused by the inability to practice frequent soil rotation.” For back yard gardeners, removing diseased plant material in the fall and planting disease resistant plants and seeds in the spring may help.
Over tea at the Dock and Paddle, the Burnes talked more about their careers. As senior scientists working in plant pathology, they were part of a science that identifies plant diseases and selects the best disease resistant trees and crops.
Although the Burnes ‘are retired, they both remain active in the community. Pat teaches piano lessons to neighborhood kids, a career she started at the age of 13. She is also a water color artist, focusing on flowers and landscapes.
Todd enjoys gardening, and the couple have planted a variety of dwarf trees (including Canadian Hemlock) in their back yard. I do a double take when he mentions their redwoods. “Not the giant Sequoias of the west coast” Todd says, “but in the same family.” The dwarf dawn redwoods, which are native to China, tolerate Minnesota cold climates. Todd says that dwarf trees are a great way to have a variety of easy to grow trees in a city backyard. The Burnes’ both love working in their garden, and enjoy sharing plants and plant disease advice.
- *“In some Native languages the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Do you know some interesting history about your home, your neighbor or about the Como neighborhood? Anyone is welcome to do an interview, share historic photos or do a write up for the Know Your Como segment of our newsletter! For more information on how to submit go to our Know Your Como page.