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Published: Monday, 7/28/2008

Visitors rediscover Lenawee County botanical park

BY GABE NELSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Hidden Lake Garden s demonstration garden and gazebo contains All America Selections of Annuals, among other varieties at the botanical park near Tipton, in the Irish Hills of Michigan s Lenawee County. The park s 755 acres are open daily. Hidden Lake Garden s demonstration garden and gazebo contains All America Selections of Annuals, among other varieties at the botanical park near Tipton, in the Irish Hills of Michigan s Lenawee County. The park s 755 acres are open daily.
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TIPTON, Mich. The trees at Hidden Lake Gardens range from foot-high bonsai to tall, stately beeches. There are lakes and hills, plains and forests, all open for visitors to explore.

And when the seasons change, so do the sights at the 755-acre botanical park, in Lenawee County at the base of Michigan s Irish Hills.

Since the park opened to the public about 75 years ago, visitors have gazed at the garden s picturesque namesake, Hidden Lake, which now has a collection of hundreds of the colorful lily-like plants called hosta growing along one shady bank

There s also the Cobbler s Knob overlook, which is one of the highest points in the county, and a collection of dwarf and rare conifers trees, mostly evergreens, that bear cones.

Though the park offers tours with a reservation, most visitors go out on their own.

A trumpeter swan glides across Hidden Lake at the 75-year-old botanical park operated by Michigan State University. A trumpeter swan glides across Hidden Lake at the 75-year-old botanical park operated by Michigan State University.
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Steven Courtney, the park s manager, said the point is to allow people to find something meaningful and personal.

Visitors can drive around the park s six miles of winding paths, hike across more than five miles of trails, or visit a plant conservatory.

Or they can do all three, and then have a picnic it s up to them.

High gas prices haven t stopped many visitors from driving up to the hilltop overlooks, but Bob and Kathy MacMillan of Farmington Hills, Mich., toured the gardens by bicycle when they visited last week.

It was part of the suburban Detroit couple s local vacation, which included stops at several small towns in southeast Michigan.

Mr. MacMillan said he hadn t visited the gardens since taking a botany class as a college student, and was glad to rediscover them.

It s one of those things that s so close by, you don t do it, he said. It s a great place.

Hidden Lake Gardens attracts about 50,000 visitors a year, roughly half as many as during the park s heyday in the 1960s.

The park was mainly a drive-through attraction back then, particularly for couples seeking a romantic destination.

Harry Fee, a wealthy Adrian resident, started the garden in 1926 on 200 acres and donated the property to Michigan State University in 1945 along with an endowment that pays about half the park s expenses, Mr. Courtney said.

The university uses the gardens as an educational resource for students of horticulture, particularly at its plant conservatory, which holds plants from tropical, temperate, and arid climates in three greenhouses.

Day lilies receive a soaking from a rain storm at Hidden Lake Gardens, which offers roads and hiking trails for visitors. Day lilies receive a soaking from a rain storm at Hidden Lake Gardens, which offers roads and hiking trails for visitors.
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Mr. Courtney said many school groups visit the conservatory on field trips, in part, because of the conservatory s focus on commercial plants like cocoa, banana, and grapefruit trees.

During the summer, the plant conservatory also displays a remarkable collection of bonsai miniature trees made by confining the roots of saplings to a small container and painstakingly guiding the growth of branches and leaves.

Ronald Elardo, a volunteer who helps grow and tend the bonsai, gently ran his hands across the foliage of a Shimpaku juniper on display last week, clearing away unhealthy branches and bristles or, as he called it, teasing the two-foot-tall tree.

Mr. Elardo, a retired German professor at Adrian College, said it can take 15 years or longer to prune and shape a bonsai into a show piece.

The juniper he tended is 100 years old, though its size suggests otherwise.

There s a certain psyche that goes along with bonsai, Mr. Elardo said, his voice quiet and calm. You have to pay attention to detail, and you have to be extremely patient.

Some trees stick out for near-perfect symmetry, others for the illusion of maturity in a tiny specimen, but there are no hard and fast rules for what makes a good bonsai.

In other words, Mr. Elardo said, it s art.

He picked up a small potted bonsai and rotated it in his hands slowly, examining the tiny tree from every angle until one side struck him. He put down the pot with that side forward, like the face of a statue.

I say that s the front because that s the way it s most aesthetically pleasing to me, Mr. Elardo said. But someone else might turn it and say, that s the front. Really, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The same could be said about the gardens, which draw people for many reasons, Mr. Courtney said.

To the 30 couples scheduled to get married at the gardens this year, the gardens serve as an outdoor chapel.

To high school seniors looking for that perfect yearbook photo, it s a studio.

And to some mourners, it s a memorial. The gardens will plant a tree in someone s memory in exchange for a donation, allowing friends and family to watch the tree grow through the years.

Beth Haynie of Brooklyn, Mich., who brought her visiting parents to see the bonsai collection last week, said she enjoys seeing the gardens throughout the year because the scenery changes from season to season and sometimes from week to week.

The park gets busiest in spring, when the magnolia and crabapple trees bloom in brilliant white, pink, and red, Mr. Courtney said.

Pastel-colored wildflowers filled the park s open fields last week and, in a few months when the leaves turn orange and brown, the park will hold its annual fall foliage festival.

Even in winter, visitors come to see the park s collection of evergreens, take in the winter scenery, and go cross-country skiing.

If you haven t seen this garden in all four seasons, you re missing something, Mr. Courtney said.

Contact Gabe Nelson at: gnelson@theblade.com or 419-724-6076.



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