BGA1 6 Outstanding Reasons to Visit the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum
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6 Outstanding Reasons to Visit the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum

Of all the botanical gardens Michigan offers, the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum stand out.

Ann Arbor has been commonly referenced as the Tree City, mostly due to the city’s dedication to the preservation of nature. Everywhere you go you see trees and plenty of greenery, but most people overlook some of the natural attractions that the city has to offer.

The University of Michigan manages two fantastically huge nature areas that are open year-round, sunrise to sunset, and free of admission. If you’re looking for a good way to kill some time on a nice day, you can ironically escape into nature without leaving the city.

Visiting these attractions are an ideal way to enjoy the great outdoors, and when the weather isn’t cooperating, the conservatory and greenhouses let you enjoy flowers and plants all year round. Combined with walking trails, they provide hours of pure enjoyment. 

The beauty of a botanical garden and arboretum is that they offer different things depending on the season. You can visit every month and see something new in bloom. With more than 700 acres, the possibilities are almost endless. Best of all, entrance is always free! 

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Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum | photo via @barbsartpad

Exploring the U-M’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens

The Matthaei Botanical Gardens are full of trails through decorative gardens and multiple native ecosystems. The gardens are dedicated to environmental stewardship and increasing understanding of the natural world.

While it is mostly an educational area, there are plenty of great sights to enjoy. There is a large meandering stream, and several ponds full of wildlife along the trails. There are also great wildflower exhibits, prairies full of native species, and odd pieces of natural art – one being a grass labyrinth for walking in a circular maze and meditating.

The gardens are occasionally host to weddings or couples taking wedding pictures. The visitor center also houses a conservatory with plants from tropical, temperate, and desert regions.

Groundskeepers say, “There is a large collection of plants that you won’t normally find all in one place, and we try to keep everything looking good all year. This is one of the nicest gardens in the Southeast Michigan area, if not the whole state.”

The gardens are usually not crowded at all. You are bound to see an employee or two working on the grounds, and a couple of joggers, but for the most part it’s a very quiet environment which makes it easy to enjoy with some company of your own.

While they are open year-round, the Matthaei Botanical Gardens are a really unique place to visit when they are in full bloom in the springtime. You have the opportunity to explore several different types of gardens at U of M.

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Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum | photo via UofM

Gateway Garden of New World Plants

Ornamental plants from both North and South America are the focus of the Gateway Garden of New World Plants. July through October is the best time to view this garden.

Perennial Garden

Visitors get ideas about what to plant in their home gardens from the Perennial Garden. Colors and scents abound. From the irises on Memorial Day to the chrysanthemums in late fall, this garden is a delight for the senses from late spring to late fall. It’s a wedding favorite too.

Helen V. Smith Woodland Wildflower Garden

Named for Dr. Helen V. Smith, the author of “Michigan Wildflowers,” the Helen V. Smith Woodland Wildflower Garden is at its prime in May. The dogwood trees are in bloom, and the wildflowers bloom beneath them.

But, spring and fall bring an abundance of interest with early flowers and ferns providing their own beauty. The garden is designed with a naturalistic approach, and the flowers are indigenous to the Great Lakes region. Benches are provided to allow for relaxed viewing.

Medicinal Garden

The earliest botanical garden at the University of Michigan was a medicinal garden. It’s a celebration of the connection between health and plants.

The medicinal garden was designed to educate visitors about the connection between healing and plants in the past and how that affects treatments today. The garden is at its best in from May to October. 

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Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum | photo via Jack Durham

Marie Azary Rock Garden

This garden features succulents and creeping mats that can thrive in a rocky environment. They require little water and enjoy hot conditions. It’s at its best in the spring but offers greenery and silver colors through most seasons.

Urban Pocket Garden

The Urban Pocket Garden is a small intimate garden that defies the urban use of power. Itcreates beauty in a public space that could easily have been neglected. Sit and enjoy the Gardenscape created by John Stevens, which is scented with honeysuckle. This is a place to enjoy every season. 

Sitting Garden

This is another intimate space where you’re encouraged to just sit and relax. It’s the perfect place toappreciate the beauty of native plants in North America. The plants in this garden have been chosen to provide a visual feast from spring through the first frost. 

Bonsai and Jenjing Garden

Native to China and Japan, the Bonsai and Penjing Garden focuses on the Bonsai and Penjing, which are unique and growing in popularity. They’re more than plants — They’re works of art. With more than 70 plants, this garden combines Asian style with influences from America and Europe.

The display gardens feature a handcrafted bonsai collection, making this a particularly attractive garden to visit for meditation. It’s usually open from May through Labor Day, making it a great summer destination. 

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Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum | photo via @nmspencer

Great Lakes Gardens

Best viewed from April to October, these gardens are home to plants that are unique to the Great Lakes area. Some of these include woodland wildflowers and native orchids.

The Great Lakes Gardens are accessible from several boardwalks, pathways, and overlooks. You can get up close and personal with some flowers you may never have seen before. 

Gaffield Children’s Garden

Use all your senses to enjoy the Gaffield Children’s Garden, which was designed to enchant children and adults alike. Children are invited to dig, use their imaginations, and build things. The maze is a favorite among visitors of all ages. 

Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden

If you’ve ever wondered what a 16th-century Tudor herb garden looked like, wonder no more. The Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden has been recreated here while representing herbs used in Asian and Native American healing and cooking, as well as Europe.

This garden is at its best in the summer, from late June through mid-July. You’re encouraged to touch and enjoy the scent of the varieties of lavender and culinary herbs. This is a favorite spot for weddings, so don’t be surprised if you come across one. 

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Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum | photo via UofM

Enjoying the Conservatory at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens

The indoor conservatory is one of the best winter things to do in Ann Arbor. Winters can be long and cold in Michigan, but it’s consistently snow-free at the conservatory.

Three biomes are presented here — temperate, tropical, and arid. The plants in each area are carefully selected to represent the diverse plants that each zone provides. You’ll always find something blooming, no matter the season. 

Walking a Matthaei Botanical Gardens Trail

There’s a wonderful network of nature trails at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Let’s take a look at each one!

Dix Pond Trail

This trail meanders through stands of hardwood trees and along the shores of two lakes, the larger one being Dix Pond. Not quite a mile long, you can expect to see blue herons, ducks, geese, and the occasional fox. For a longer hike, you can connect with the Fleming Creek Trail at marker #5 or #8.

Fleming Creek Trail

This wetlands trail runs along the east side of Fleming Creek. The tree stumps are a mute testimony to the devastation caused by the pests that killed the American elm, larch, and ash trees.

The 1.2-mile trail has some cottonwoods and oak trees. Be prepared to get muddy feet, though. You can connect with the Marilyn Bland Prairie Trail at maker #5. 

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Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum | photo via Jack Durham

Marilyn Bland Prairie Trail

This trail visits the restored prairie in a mini loop. It also has some of the largest trees in the area. It connects to other trails at makers #3 and #5. Be on the lookout for woodpeckers, geese, and raccoons. 

Sue Reichert Discovery Trail

Passing near two ponds, this short trail is designed to be a sensory experience. Beware of the northern route, which is known for its soggy bottom. 

Sam Graham Trees Trail

This unique trail winds through several habitats. It has been recreated to show off the trees that would have been here before development. 

Taking an Adventure Through the University of Michigan’s Nichols Arboretum

The Nichols Arboretum is the 123-acre site where the botanical garden and arboretum were originally located when they opened in 1907. Since then, the arboretum has developed into a popular destination for students and visitors to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The Nichols Arboretum, more commonly referred to as “the Arb,” is one of the coolest local places to hang out in the summertime. Nestled right near the University of Michigan Central Campus and Medical Center, it is a surprisingly peaceful and serene environment.

While most of the Midwest is flat and boring, the Arb is full of large hills and valleys, running right up to the Huron River. The landscape was crafted all the way back in 1907, and since then it has been filled with a variety of plants from all over North America.

The university likes to call it a 123-acre living museum, however, most of the traffic in the Arb is for recreational purposes.

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Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum | photo via UofM

The massive grassy valleys are always full of people tossing around Frisbees, relaxing under shady trees and reading, or simply working on their tan in a secluded area. The trails on changing elevations make it a common place for runners to train.

The great scenery makes it a popular place for local high school students to do senior pictures as well. There are many rough trails built into the hills if you happen to be interested in doing some exploring. If you don’t have a map, you may even find yourself lost!

Even though it is right in the town, they have done a great job of keeping most surrounding buildings out of sight, so it can be easy to get disoriented. The fact that you feel like you are completely out in the open is what makes it such a great escape though.

Even if you aren’t interested in playing around out in the fields, the Arb is truly one of the awesome places to explore in Ann Arbor. Try taking the trail to the highest point on the south side, and you can look out and see the entire North Campus area of the university.

Gateway Garden

This lovely garden welcomes visitors to the Nichols Arboretum. The Gateway Garden plants include familiar favorites, such as sedum and carpet roses, mixed with less familiar natives.

Heathdale Garden 

Many of the plants in this garden are native to the Appalachians with azaleas, rhododendrons, and mountain laurel. There are also native ferns and woodland wildflowers. Hickory, oaks, hemlocks, and dogwood are abundant too. 

Peony Garden  

Peony lovers will be in heaven here. There are 800 peonies spread over 27 beds. The tree peonies bloom first in April. When the garden is in full bloom, more than 10,000 flowers attract visitors year after year. You can identify which peonies are fragrant by using the garden flyer.

Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum 6 Outstanding Reasons to Visit the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum
Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum | photo via @gkovalova

Centennial Shrub Collection

The shrub collection here is historically significant and home to old and new plants that mesh perfectly with the natural environment. Dating back to the origins of the arboretum, it’s one of the most special collections. In May, the scent of lilacs is in the air, and during fall, the fruit trees attract a variety of birds. 

Exploring the Nichols Arboretum Trails

Almost 3.5 miles of trails traverse the most important displays in the arboretum. Pick up a map at the entrance to help you make the most of your visit using the trails to see what interests you. 

  • Laurel Ridge Trail — Use this trail to visit rhododendrons, azaleas, mountain laurels, and tree peonies. 
  • Peony Trail — This trail is accessible and an easy flat walk as it passes through the peony garden but rises uphill as it connects to the Laurel Ridge Trail. 
  • Riverfront Trail — The name is slightly deceptive. Although the trail does go to the riverfront, it passes through the peony garden, on a trail overlooking the Huron River, and then through the Appalachian plants of Heathdale.  
  • Forest Trail — This trail is moderate to difficult and covers a lot of ground and a variety of environments.
  • Prairie Trail — The trail to the prairie runs through the forest and is very sunny during the summer, so take a hat. 
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Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum | photo via Jack Durham

Observing More Nichols Arboretum Displays and Natural Areas

The Nichols Arboretum has many displays & natural areas. Alex Dow Field is a prairie ecosystem, while Magnolia Glade is a dramatic glen of yellow, pink, and white magnolias from a variety of locations.

Oak Openings is a collection of oaks and wildflowers that require the full summer sun that the openings provide. River Landing is a scenic location to be enjoyed every season by bird-watchers, fly fishermen, sun worshipers, and people-watchers.

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Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum | photo via UofM

Take Advantage of the Outdoors in Southeast Michigan

No matter the season, the U-M’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum prove that Michigan is second to none when it comes to natural beauty. However, there’s even more beauty to explore in Ann Arbor & Detroit.

For instance, you can enjoy the fall colors along the Huron River in Ann Arbor and year-round activities at Campus Martius Detroit. Or, you could check out the many apple orchards and cider mills in Southeast Michigan.

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