The Great Lakes Garden “grew out of a sense I’ve long had that botanical gardens have a responsibility to reflect the region where they’re located,” explains Bob Grese, the U-M landscape architecture prof who oversees the Arboretum and the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The new garden at Matthaei will re-create some of the unique habitats of the Great Lakes—shorelines, prairies, woodlands, cobble beaches, floodplains, and a limestone habitat called an alvar that’s found in only a couple of regions in the world—and showcase the diversity of flora found in them, including native orchids, ferns, prairie plants, and lady slippers.

The missions of the Arb and the Botanical Gardens have shifted over the years. The first botanical garden at U-M was intended for medical students to study medicinal plants. Later, their direction was driven largely by local horticultural groups. “The American Rose Society helped develop a rose garden, the Rock Garden Society helped develop a rock garden, and there was a group called the Herb Study Group that helped develop an herb garden,” Grese explains. “One of the things we’ve done in the last few years is develop some gardens that are more focused on native plants.”

They’ve also spruced up, as it were, the Sam Graham Trees, a trail in the botanical gardens named for the late U-M forestry prof. Graham was “one of the first forestry professionals and instructors to incorporate principles of ecology into the teaching of forestry,” Grese says, “trying to move forestry from just being about producing commodities to thinking about an interconnected system of living parts.”

The trail had been around since 1996, but Grese, his staff, and volunteers have connected it to other existing trails to form a loop arranged in a series of ecologically distinct groves. The goal is to include as many tree species native to Michigan as possible. “There are about seventy or so major ones,” he says. “To date, we have about sixty-five planted, although there are others that have volunteered on their own. My guess is there may be another twenty-five or so relatively uncommon ones.”

Some of the trees are still “little more than sticks,” partly because Matthaei doesn’t plant one on the trail unless it can confirm genetically that it came from somewhere in the state—”We don’t want to go to a nursery and buy a sugar maple and find out later it came from Pennsylvania,” Grese says. “For instance, we couldn’t find anybody that could guarantee their hemlocks came from the state, but we had a volunteer with some property in the Upper Peninsula who was willing to dig up some hemlock seedlings and bring them to us.”

Though it will be thirty years before all the trees are full grown, “my personal hope is that exposing people to the beauty of these native plants will inspire them to want to protect the wild habitats where they grow naturally,” says Grese, “so there’s a connection between the created nature we have in this garden and building a sense of stewardship of the habitats where these plants grow in the wild.”