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Hansen, Niels Ebbesen

Published onJul 30, 2021
Hansen, Niels Ebbesen

(January 4, 1866 – October 5, 1950)

Quick Facts

Alumnus Niels Hansen found or developed some 350 varieties of fruits, vegetables and trees adapted to the dry, severe climate of the northern Plains. He is regarded as South Dakota’s great plant pioneer.

A 1908 portrait of Hansen during his third plant exploration to Russia. He wears his field exploration gear and holds a bundle of alfalfa. Source: South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum

Danish-born N.E. Hansen, for whom some of the facilities on the South Dakota State University (SDSU) campus are named, found or developed some 350 varieties of fruits, vegetables and trees adapted to the dry, severe climate of the northern Plains - the region Hansen called "my American Siberia."

He knew something about Siberia. A professor of horticulture at what is now SDSU, Hansen also had a title and a job from the federal government that took him into remote parts of the world as "USDA Plant Explorer No. 1." It was as a plant explorer, though not always for USDA, that Hansen made eight journeys through Europe and Asia at the start of the 20th century.

His first plant trip was as a student at Iowa State College (now University) in Ames in 1894. Already in his senior year as an undergraduate in 1887, N.E. Hansen was writing to his father, "There is both money and honor to be gained by someone who succeeds in bringing out fruits, better than old ones." The money seemed to elude Hansen, though - he never got wealthy from his work as a plant breeder. But he did win honor, and he cultivated it carefully.

After that he made three expeditions for the USDA in 1897, 1906, and 1908. His reputation was so great that the state of South Dakota paid for two plant exploring expeditions in 1913 and 1924. His last trips overseas were a 1930 visit to the International Congress of Horticulture, and finally a 1934 visit to Russia at the invitation and expense of the Soviet Union.

It was during the three USDA tours that Hansen acquired much of his colorful reputation. He was commissioned in 1897 by Secretary of Agriculture "Tama Jim" Wilson, whom Hansen knew previously as director of the Iowa Experiment Station, to go out and find useful plants for the Great Northwest -- what we would call now the Northern Plains area. That meant rambles across Scandinavia, Russia, Siberia, and China in search of plants that American producers could use - a hardy red clover from Lapland, crested wheat grass and alfalfa from Russia, fruits from wherever he could find them. Hansen's master's degree thesis in 1895 was a study of apples, but he had an explorer's interest in all kinds of plant material.

An article about Hansen written on the eve of World War I sums up Hansen in a nutshell. The unnamed author in Farm, Stock and Home describes him as a "quiet, unassuming, middle-sized, middle-aged Danish-American - much of a scientist and a good deal of a publicist."

His gifts as a publicist served him well when the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no longer headed by "Tama Jim" Wilson, politely refused his offer to do more plant exploring work for the agency. Determined to get the plant material he needed, Hansen asked the South Dakota Legislature to fund his work - and state lawmakers agreed to foot the bill, not once, but twice.

N.E. Hansen's work has been in the forage crops side - alfalfa, smooth bromegrass, crested wheatgrass, plants such as those that could help agricultural producers make a living on the Northern Plains. Forages paid the bills, so to speak, for his travels. But his heart really was in fruits - apples, pears, the stone fruits and pome fruits in general. His collections show that he also brought back a lot of melons and garden vegetables. Besides ranching or grain farming, a house out on the prairie would have to have a garden, and some fruit trees. Those were among the resources rural families relied on, and Hansen saw them as crucial in a century of steadily increasing world population.

"As population increases, we must look to Horticulture as one important way of making a living on a smaller area of land," Hansen wrote in a 1930 report to the South Dakota State Horticultural Society. If N.E. Hansen had a philosophy that guided him in his work, it may be found in what he wrote after visiting legendary plant breeder Luther Burbank in California in August 1905.

"Mr. Luther Burbank is earnestly endeavoring to produce better flowers and fruits for the public good. Mr. Burbank's courage and persistence in bringing plants together from all parts of the world, and making so many new combinations, is to be commended as it has upset some old ideas as to the relationship of species, and plant breeders are less hampered by the restrictions of systematists," he wrote in another of his reports to the South Dakota State Horticultural Society. "Plant breeders now look upon a species as a more or less definite bundle of characteristics, all capable of great modifications."

July/August 2004 issue of South Dakota Magazine Source:

In later years, Hansen would sometimes be called the "Burbank of the Plains," for good reason. He not only pursued the same goal as Burbank, he espoused some of the same methods.

He took material he had back from Asia or and then crossed those introductions with the wild relatives of the northern Great Plains such as sand cherries or native plums. He was looking for a good fruit producer that would have the hardiness that would stand up to our environment. In some cases, the hardiness was what he found on the Northern Plains; in other cases, it was in the plant material he brought back from more northern latitudes.

Hansen's approach in many cases has been successful. Not in every case, because plant material introduced from elsewhere is often subject to new disease pressures - the "Hansen Manchurian elm" that N.E. Hansen and his son, Carl, brought back from Asia in 1934 is an example. Hansen wasn't always the breeder who did the work. The seed of the Persian winter melon that Hansen brought back from Turkestan in 1897 went to Utah and California, enabling plant breeders through hybridization to develop Persian and Honey Dew melons.

Twelve varieties of apricot that Hansen released all bear Chinese names: Mandarin, Chow, Sing, Ninguta, Tola, Anda, Zun, Manchu, Sino, Lalin, Hulan, Sansin. Hansen's pears, similarly, most often carried names of Russian or Cossack heroes or often place names from Siberia or elsewhere in Asia, such as Yermak, Finsib, Tanya, Selenga, Okolo, Sangari, Ilya.

Yet his rambles in search of plant material were not limited to overseas trips. Hansen gathered grapes in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Canada for his breeding program. Doubtless many of them found their way into his breeding program, which produced new plant varieties at an amazing pace. In 1925 he released 32 hardy grapes. That was about the time he was releasing eight varieties of crab apple as well.

To plants developed from native stock he might give names that suggested the Native Americans who first used them. The Zitkala rose, for example, got its name from a Native American word, as did the Wapago golden currant, developed from wild fruit from Cottonwood, S.D. Hansen's plums typically had Native American words in the name -- Cikana, Sapa, Opata, Hanska, Kaga, Tecumseh, Waneta, Tokeya sandcherry hybrid, Yuteca, Tokata, Waseta. So did virtually all Hansen's grapes except for the Sungari that he brought back from Asia.

Hansen gathered wild grapes from the Missouri River near Pierre, S.D., and also near Bismarck, N.D. But he used the wild grapes from South Dakota as a parent in only two of his varieties, Teopah and Nompah. Perhaps with the goal of hardiness in mind, he used North Dakota wild grapes as a parent in 13 varieties.Though Hansen's grapes have arguably all been superseded by newer varieties, nurseries occasionally still grow and sell Hansen varieties such as Chontay and Siposka. SDSU has released 33 varieties of grape during its history - the 32 that Hansen released and one other.

It was also Hansen's reputation that led to his last major expedition abroad. The Soviets invited Hansen to join an agricultural exploration tour to eastern Siberia in 1934. During that trip, Hansen was surprised to learn that some of his bulletins had been translated into Russian, and that some of his hybrid fruits were under cultivation in Russia.

In a lifetime of working with plants, Hansen earned many honors and awards. The American Pomology Society gave Hansen its biggest award, the Marshal P. Wilder Medal, for his new fruit varieties in 1929. The American Rose Society gave Hansen a First Prize in 1936 for 41 new seedlings of hardy roses. The Manitoba Horticultural Society awarded him the A.P. Stevensen Gold Medal for new fruits in 1935.

Editors Note: While at Iowa State, Hansen met a young Emma Pammel, sister of Prof. Louis Pammel, and a courtship began with the help of peer George Washington Carver. After many years, Emma finally agreed to date Hansen. They were married in the fall of 1898. Their marriage lasted until Emma’s untimely death from appendicitis in December of 1904. She was survived by two children, Eva and Carl. Hansen would go on to marry Emma’s sister, Dora, who had helped him tend to the young children. [1]

About the Authors

Kevin Kephart is the Director of the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station at the South Dakota State University ( in the beautiful college town of Brookings. Lance Nixon is with AgBio Communications at the South Dakota State University.

Selected Sources

1941 by Mrs. H.J. Taylor - a book called "To Plant the Prairies and the Plains" that still serves as a valuable look at Hansen's life and career.

“Firmly Planted in South Dakota” by Helen Hansen Loen [revised from the July/August 2004 issue of South Dakota Magazine] online.

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