Cultivating a legacy
Public gardens and nature preserves thrive thanks to generous landowners and conservationists.
By Marla R. Miller

Tucked away in a rural, forested region of western Michigan, once a virgin pine forest revered by the Potawatomi Indians and later cleared of timber by the railroad, wildflowers blossom every spring in a special sanctuary. It’s a place where the pink lady’s slipper, pitcher plant, wild columbine, Indian pipe, and other rare and medicinal plant species flourish, and a haven for wildflower enthusiasts, botanists, birders and nature lovers looking for a slice of paradise.

Known as the Loda Lake National Wildflower Sanctuary, it is the only wildflower sanctuary in the 190-million-acre national forest system managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Fortunately, to the benefit of Michigan residents, it is not the only place where garden enthusiasts and private landowners had the foresight to protect native plants, establish arboretums and orchards, and experiment with different horticulture and design techniques. Often operated today as nonprofits or managed by state parks or universities, many of Michigan’s public gardens have unique histories, some dating back a century.

“It’s a great gift to the public, said Paul Pfeifer, managing director of Hidden Lake Garden, in Tipton. “I think folks realized they had something pretty special and wanted to preserve the legacy so that the gardens and land would continue to be used in the way they envisioned.”

Dow Gardens and Whiting Forest, Midland
First cultivated in 1899 by Herbert Dow on 8 acres of sandy land, Dow Gardens provided a creative and leisure outlet for Dow, who enjoyed developing gardens, ponds and orchards on the property. The 110-acre gardens opened to the public upon his death, and today, visitors can explore mature trees and perennials, 20,000 annual varieties and unique water features.

“It is amazing to get ideas for your own home, and one of the cool things is that all of the plants are labeled,” said Kristen Inman, marketing manager.

Highlights include a pollinator garden, stream walk, herb and rose garden, an interactive children’s garden and the popular Butterflies in Bloom exhibit every spring. Dow Gardens features four bridges designed by Alden B. Dow, plus a visitor’s center and gift shop, tours of the former Dow family home, and plenty of quiet spots to relax or explore.

A big expansion project is underway at nearby Whiting Forest, slated to open in spring 2019, and features the longest handicap-accessible canopy walk in the nation. The canopy walk takes visitors 40 feet above the forest floor and features three lookout points of the pond, orchard and forest.

“It’s a major project that we anticipate will be a big draw not only to Midland but Michigan in general,” said Kyle Bagnall, Whiting Forest program manager. “It will be a unique experience for people in nature; there aren’t many in the country.”


Hidden Lake Gardens is open 362 days of the year and sees the most visitors in autumn for fall colors. The visitor’s center offers year-round programming, housing a library, exhibits, auditorium, meeting rooms and a gift shop.

 

Hidden Lake Gardens, Tipton
In the Irish Hills of southeast Michigan, Adrian businessman Harry Fee purchased Hidden Lake, along with 200 acres of land, in 1926 and started farming and growing nursery stock as a retirement project. Fee donated the property to Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, now Michigan State University, in 1945 and established an endowment for operating costs. Hidden Lake Gardens, with rolling terrain and valleys, has grown to 755 acres, and the mission remains to operate for the benefit of the public.

“It’s a very unique, beautiful serene place to be,” Pfeifer said. “It’s a great escape from the everyday world to come out and see some beautiful plants and experience nature.”

Property highlights include a gazebo popular for weddings, demonstration garden with annuals and perennials, a Hosta Hillside with over 800 varieties, a bonsai courtyard, and 350 dwarf and rare conifers. The visitor’s center offers year-round programming, housing a library, exhibits and auditorium. The conservatory features tropical and arid plants and an early look at spring with blooming bulbs in the temperate house.

Visitors can drive through the 120-acre arboretum and see vistas of flowering trees like lilacs and crabapples, enjoy cultivated gardens and landscapes, and explore trails through natural woodland and meadow areas.

 
At Fernwood Gardens, Fern Temple, a sculpture by Austin Collins, stands near blooming magnolias.

Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve, Niles
Similarly, in southwest Michigan, Kay and Walter Boydston discovered a tranquil, 12-acre property near the St. Joseph River and purchased it in 1941. Kay’s gardens and the surrounding woods attracted other nature, horticulture and craft lovers and led to the creation of Fernwood in 1964.

“Even though (the Boydstons) passed away, they still have a large presence here,” said Elaine Rowland, development and community engagement manager. “We keep with tradition, and often, we think about Kay and what she would have done. It’s very important for us to follow her vision.”

Niles philanthropists Lawrence and Mary Plym purchased adjoining acreage to add an arboretum and nature preserve. Visitors can spend a couple of hours or an entire day exploring the property, and there is something always in bloom with more than a dozen unique garden areas.

Among the most popular are the hands-on children’s nature adventure garden and the Paul Busse-designed railway garden, open May to October. The Fern Conservatory is named after Kay, a skilled grower of ferns, and features 100 kinds of tropical ferns and an orchid exhibit.

There are outdoor terraces, patios and gazebos to enjoy butterflies and hummingbirds, a Japanese Garden designed by Ben Oki, and paths to the winter and summer house and water wheel. Fernwood’s 55-acre nature preserve includes trails of varying lengths and difficulty to the river, arboretum and tallgrass prairie.

Guests can enjoy lunch at the café, peruse the visitor center, art gallery and outdoor sculpture, and experience summer concerts and a wide variety of programs. Last fall, Fernwood broke ground on a new 5,500-square-foot education center to expand programs and classes.


The Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden, a favorite place for weddings.

 

Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, Ann Arbor
Nestled in the heart of an urban environment, Nichols Arboretum provides a century-old example of careful urban planning that honors existing natural features and ecosystems, and encourages human interaction with the natural world. Known as The Arb, adjacent to University of Michigan’s main campus, it was established in 1907 as a joint project between the university and city of Ann Arbor. Today, it’s a popular spot for students, U of M and hospital staffs, and visitors to read, relax and people watch.

In the 1950s, thanks to a 200-acre donation by the Matthaei family, the university moved the botanical garden to a new site several miles away. Together, Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum include over 700 acres of specialty gardens, active research areas and nature preserves.

“One of the key differences is that the botanical gardens has a much greater emphasis on display gardens and cultivated plants,” Director Robert Grese said. “The arboretum is a very topographic, rolling and diverse site. The collections there are much more naturalistic.”

At Matthaei, visitors can discover a variety of garden settings, from a Japanese-inspired Bonsai and Penjing garden to a Great Lakes Garden and other perennial and wildflower collections. The 400-acre site includes contemplative sitting areas, several hiking trails, a working campus farm, art installations, a conservatory, auditorium and public programming.

“I think we have some really beautiful gardens and natural spaces for people to enjoy,” Grese said. “We use approaches people can use at home that are sustainable garden practices, so they can really discover ways they can create these habitats that are productive for wildlife, productive for pollinators and be really sustainable over the long term.”

The Arb property houses a historic collection of peonies, azaleas and other Appalachian plants, centennial shrubs, 3.5 miles of walking trails, river access and research areas. A new paved hiking and biking path opened last fall and connects Matthaei Botanical Gardens with a network of trail systems leading to parks and central campus.

 
Loda Lake National Wildflower Sanctuary

Loda Lake National Wildflower Sanctuary, White Cloud
In many ways, Loda Lake serves as a good reminder of lower Michigan’s logging history — and that nature has a way of restoring itself. The land was cleared of its timber, used as a farm and summer retreat, then declared “sub-marginal” and sold to the Forest Service in 1937. Through a unique partnership, the Forest Service owns and maintains Loda Lake, but Michigan Garden Clubs serves as managing partner and provides financial and volunteer support.

A convincing letter-writing campaign by garden club chairperson Grace Votey spurred the designation and led to a cooperative agreement in 1949, said Karen Motawi, Loda Lake chairperson.

The protected 72-acre natural area within the Manistee National Forest boasts over 500 plant species, including 230 identified species of wildflowers, a small lake and boat launch, several nature trails and remnants of historic structures.

MCG spearheaded several improvement projects in recent years, including a new access road and parking lot, picnic pavilion and handicap accessible trails to the end of the boardwalk.

There are a variety of habitats found within the sanctuary, making it a great location for diverse vegetation, and bird and wildlife viewing. The main trail loop includes numbered posts that identify native plants and interpretive brochures are available. The trails also connect to the 4,600-mile North Country Trail that passes through Michigan. ≈

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist who lives in Norton Shores where she enjoys the lakeshore lifestyle.