Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Fleeting Beauty, Enduring Value: The Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden

Tues., May 19, 7-9 pm
Ann Arbor District Library main branch
343 South Fifth Avenue
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104

A presentation by Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum Curator Dr. David C. Michener

Ann Arbor's favorite garden will soon be in bloom! Come and find out how we're enriching this historic collection and adding long-desired specimens, including Chinese and Japanese tree peonies. At tonight’s presentation Matthaei-Nichols Curator Dr. David C. Michener will offer a best-guess of when the peonies will burst into bloom and which plants may bloom for the first time this year. Get a behind-the-scenes view of changes and enhancements to this national treasure as we prepare for the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden’s centennial in 2022. Bring your questions, too, for the after-session discussion.

Share your peony garden stories and photos! Submit your stories and photos online at the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden website. Or bring a few to tonight's presentation for possible future inclusion on our website about public enjoyment of Ann Arbor's favorite garden.

A view of the peony garden from nearby Laurel Ridge
Photo credits: Michele Yanga
Discussion Location: The Ann Arbor District Library's Multi-Purpose Room at the downtown site. A listing for the program can be found on the Ann Arbor District Library's website:

Presented by the Ann Arbor District Library and

1800 N. Dixboro Rd. (Matthaei)
1610 Washington Hts. (Arb)


Monday, May 11, 2015

Bonsai Expert Visits Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Bonsai artist David DeGroot reshapes not just some of the plants themselves in the Matthaei-Nichols collection, but how we look at them

Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum recently invited bonsai expert David DeGroot to conduct a multi-day session of bonsai care, pruning, and instruction. DeGroot retired in 2014 after 25 years as curator of the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection in Federal Way, Washington, where he tended a collection of more than 120 trees. David is author of Basic Bonsai Design (Basic Books) and the forthcoming Principals of Bonsai Design. Today he travels extensively, lecturing and giving bonsai workshops for gardens and other organizations with bonsai collections.

A Larix laricina (American larch) undergoing
a transformation by David DeGroot
We hired DeGroot as a consultant to guide us, over the course of several years, in the care and styling of our bonsai. DeGroot's long experience in the art of bonsai will “bump us up to the next level,” says Carmen Leskoviansky, Matthaei-Nichols collections and natural areas specialist. “We have good trees, she adds, "but we wanted a professional eye to critique our work and give advice on where to go and how to maintain some of the trees that have really reached a peak in their design where we’re uncertain how to move forward. David will provide us with the expertise and encouragement to make some big changes that will result in lovely, artful bonsai.”  

For three days in late April 2015 DeGroot—along with members of the Ann Arbor Bonsai Society and local bonsai artist and teacher Jack Wikle—circled around, discussed, pruned, and examined many of the trees in the Matthaei-Nichols collection.

David DeGroot in the Bonsai & Penjing
Garden at Matthaei
For this bonsai greenhorn observing the action from the sidelines, the progress and results were surprising, even unsettling. At certain points the floor was littered with branches as DeGroot applied his technique. “Less is more,” DeGroot said of a yew tree that he and Jack Wikle were working on. Before DeGroot began work on the yew it was about two and half feet tall and a bit shaggy, with a bare trunk that recalled a well-aged tree. “But we’re keeping the bones of the tree,” DeGroot comments as he continues his work. When asked the question, how do we know when the tree is ready to display, DeGroot observes, half seriously, “When it looks nice!” DeGroot went on to say that for this yew he was setting some basic structure, and the refinements would come later.

David DeGroot uses a blow torch to help shape branches

This particular yew has deadwood (shari) and a hole in the trunk. The hole was purposely created some years ago. Bonsai is art, and all art is subject to the whims of fashion. Today such trunk holes are out of style. To freshen the design while respecting the tree and its basic form DeGroot pulled some of the branches down with wires, creating a new front viewing point for the tree. He also tilted the tree a bit forward.

Moving over to a Japanese beech DeGroot worked with Wikle to recreate the look of the tree as it would be in its natural setting. “A large part of our discussion concerns the crown of the tree,” DeGroot observes. “Many trees have a characteristic juvenile leader so the tree puts its energy into the trunk’s apical terminal. At some point a trigger happens where branches will bolt and the tree starts taking on a rounder appearance. So for this beech, the low branches are emerging as they should be, including the crown, which needs to be rounded and not pointy.”
Jack Wikle (L) and Cyril Grum work on a
Japanese yew.

In one way the art of bonsai is about recreating the forms of nature in miniature. When looking at a bonsai tree the casual observer may not appreciate the many hours and in some cases decades of careful management required to imitate what nature seems to do so casually. DeGroot compares the training and care of a bonsai to an athlete in training. “We’re taking the tree to its limits but at the same time giving it the best possible care. Just as many athletes push themselves to new limits to achieve amazing goals we’re pushing this beech, stressing it, to give it the incentive to create more growth.”

A Japanese yew undergoing something
of a radical transformation under the
expert wyw of DeGroot. DeGroot
obscures the hole in the tree trunk
(called "shari" and now out of fashion)
by pulling other branches down over it.
Eventually the braches will grow, covering
the shari. Note the multiple branches littering
the floor.

 In time DeGroot’s artistry will take shape as the bonsai he worked on evolve. “It was fun and refreshing to have someone so bold and enthusiastic help us make some real art pieces,” Leskoviansky says.  “I'm excited to see what the future holds for our collection!”

Friday, May 8, 2015

Kids Write about Nature for Kids

With the help of University of Michigan School of Education grad student Molly Garrett, third-graders in Ann Arbor’s Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School create compelling copy and brochures depicting the biomes of the world

Creating clear, concise, and interesting signage and brochures for a botanical garden, museum, or zoo can be a challenge. Interpretation needs to address multiple audiences and different ages while conveying information in a lively format that’s educational and yet uncomplicated.

The current exhibit at Matthaei Botanical Gardens is a trove of brochures created by Amy Warner's third grade class at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Ann Arbor. Amy's graduate student intern, Molly Garrett, devised this informational writing unit with the intent to provide students with an authentic purpose for writing.

The project assignment was to research the earth’s terrestrial biomes and to create informational text to educate others about biomes. Students researched the arctic, tundra, grasslands, tropical rainforests, desserts, the temperate deciduous forest, and the temperate coniferous forest (taiga). The purpose of the assignment was to create materials for Matthaei Botanical Gardens younger visitors.

Some examples of brochures created by the King Elementary third-graders.

The third graders immersed themselves in the writing project for six weeks. The class decided to use informational brochures as their medium for educating the garden's young visitors.

In the project's initial stages, students researched their chosen terrestrial biome using books and online sources, and explored the genre of informational text in brochures. Through this exploration they discovered the features of brochures, such as a cover page, subtitles, use of images, and a bibliography. Students used index cards to organize their research into the following categories: climate, location, plants, animals, and other facts. This process supported the transfer of their research into the writing process. Students followed the traditional writing process of planning, drafting, revising, and editing their work. They used computers to publish their brochures, which is the work exhibited at Matthaei today.

The third-grade writers produced impressive results about the Earth's biomes and are very proud of their finished work. Please join us at Matthaei for a look at the students’ efforts.

Exhibit runs through May 17 at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, 1800 N. Dixboro Rd., Ann Arbor, MI 48105. The Gardens is open daily 10 am-4:30 pm. Admission is free, with a small hourly parking charge. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Shakespeare in the Arb: Fifteen Years of Outdoor Theater Magic

Shakespeare in the Arb turns 15 in '15. Each performance---which takes place outdoors in Nichols Arboretum---makes for a moving theater experience for audience members and cast alike. Literally. Cast and audience move to different locations in the Arb depending on what scene is being performed. This engagement with the outdoors makes for a true integration of play and nature. In fact, the outdoor setting is one aspect of Shakespeare in the Arb that makes it unique. (For information on this season's productions visit our Shakespeare in the Arb page. Dates are Thursdays - Sundays, June 4-28.)
David Zinn's poster from the
2002 production of

Shakespeare in the Arb began in the spring of 2001. Then Matthaei-Nichols director of development Inger Schultz applied for a three-year Ford Motor Company Grant for the Arts. Having received the grant, Schultz invited director Kate Mendeloff from the Residential College to use the first part of the award to produce a play in Nichols Arboretum. Schultz had been impressed by Mendeloff’s outdoor production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Mendeloff, who specializes in early modern and modern drama, originally considered directing Chekhov’s work once again. Instead she chose Shakespeare’s masterpiece A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play she says is “perfect for the Arb,” with its natural setting, structure, and language. Midsummer, a crowd favorite, has enjoyed a repeat performance every five years and will be performed again this summer for the fifteenth anniversary.

Opening weekend performances in 2001 struggled at first, battling low temperatures and cold rain, and as a result small crowds. But under the clear skies of the second weekend, roughly two hundred visitors appeared for each performance. In 2002 the show featured a double cast, charged for tickets, and sold out every performance for three weeks. The Ann Arbor tradition of Shakespeare in the Arb bloomed in full.
Fairies in the 2010 production of Midsummer run through the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden.
Often the the timing of Shakespeare in the Arb
coincides perfectly with the blooming of the
 peony garden, adding an extra layer of magic to
 the performances. 

The Arb is a unique stage, and as long-time actor Joe McDonald says, “It’s an essential part of the cast.” Mendeloff loves the way productions and rehearsals in the Arb unravel organically, and the way the setting provides inspiration, countless unusual challenges, and moments that are “magical and serendipitous.” Each performance of Shakespeare in the Arb is unique and filled with the unexpected. Butterflies and deer often drift through the backdrop. Other sights are slightly less majestic. Joggers, curious dogs, hospital helicopters, joy-riding pilots, trains, and hail storms have all graced the stage with their presence. But as actor Carol Gray put it, “Arb audiences are extremely hearty and brave,” and the cast humorously compensates for interruptions as if they had actually happened in the world of the play. “What dark magic is this?” one actor yelled as a train roared through a scene in The Tempest, a play that features “dark magic.” Another obstacle is the unusual acoustics of the natural setting. Mendeloff tries to choose locations for scenes that are natural amphitheaters, like Heathdale, or that have trees in the background to project sound towards the audience.
Director Kate Mendeloff with Shakespeare in the Arb musicians
in the background. Music often accompanies the Shakespeare
in the Arb performances.
The organic nature of the Arb and the development of each show is a source of inspiration for Mendeloff and her crew. In the winter of 2003, Mendeloff was walking through Dow Prairie when she slipped on the ice. As she sat and collected herself in the snow, she envisioned a horse galloping towards her down the path. Sure enough, that summer’s production featured a horse jogging through the prairie and into the scene.

Actor Carol Gray says, “Kate is a fearless experimenter and a gracious leader, and the diversity of Arb alumni is a testament to her collaborative directing style.” Shakespeare in the Arb serves as an important link between the mission of Matthaei-Nichols, the academic side of the university, and the Ann Arbor community. In particular, these performances provide a remarkable experience for the students involved, who range from theater majors to future engineers. With double and triple casts each year, actors are forced to work interchangeably with other actors whom they may have never rehearsed with. And of course, actors have to project their voices and be physically fit in ways that a traditional theater environment wouldn’t require. Mendeloff also hires a crew of assistant student directors. “It’s a very non-hierarchical structure of rehearsal,” she says, “It has to be. We have to take advantage of every day it’s not raining.” As a result, the actors split into groups all across the Arb, working simultaneously on a variety of scenes under the leadership of student directors, while Mendeloff oversees the greater creative project.

Shakespeare in the Arb joins many people to the Arb who might never have visited otherwise. Mendeloff hopes the audience leaves thinking, “I want to come back and take a walk.” And she hopes that their walk is populated with the ghosts and language of the performances they’ve seen. Arb and Gardens director Bob Grese says, “These plays encourage audiences to see the Arb from new perspectives, which is really quite wonderful.  As I walk through the Arb these days, I can't help but reflect on how one setting became a magical place in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or something different in The Tempest.” Mendeloff claims her own appreciation and awareness of nature has expanded dramatically as a result of her experience with the program. “I love these trees,” she says. “They’re like my children.”

These performances also influence the Arb’s development in more concrete ways. Former Matthaei-Nichols' employee April Pickrel recalls how Shakespeare in the Arb forced staff to introduce now vital resources to the Arb, such as a golf cart, a cash register, and restrooms.

Many potential visitors might feel intimidated by the difficult nature of Shakespeare’s plays. But even Mendeloff herself says she was originally nervous about directing Shakespeare, which was outside of her area of expertise. “I mean, it’s Shakespeare!” she says, speaking about the early days of the show. But she has learned so much about each play and continues to learn each year and during each performance, and she believes audiences will have a similar experience. The Arb as a setting makes the plays more enjoyable and more accessible. The audience drifts to new locations from scene to scene, allowing people to give their minds a break and to enjoy themselves and the Arb before they dive back into the world of the play. The setting creates an immersive and interactive experience; rather than “imagining” the Forest of Arden in a dark theatre, the audience is in an actual forest. Children can sit right in the front row without having to worry about being fidgety or noisy. Rather than letting their eyes wander around a dark, enclosed theater, visitors and children can look off and see squirrels, birds, and trees. “And,” Mendeloff says, “I always put in a sword-fight or two for the little boys.” fifteen years, Shakespeare in the Arb continues to develop, grow, and find success. Mendeloff enjoys revisiting plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and says the experience always deepens everyone’s understanding of the play and the audience’s engagement. But looking ahead, she would like to experiment with more difficult productions, which she finds more gratifying as a director, and would like to produce some of Shakespeare’s great histories and tragedies. With another nod to the children in the front row, Mendeloff says, “I’d like to put on Henry V, and have all the soldiers come charging across the field towards the audience.”

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Matthaei Botanical Gardens Trail

A much-anticipated hiking and biking trail connecting Matthaei with points beyond is within sprinting distance. With some critical dollars in place and local governments on board, private donations will close the funding gap.

Talk of a trail connecting Matthaei Botanical Gardens with Parker Mill Park and the Border to Border Trail system has been brewing for years. Until recently, however, it was just that—talk. Now we’re within sprinting distance of a trail that will engage users with nature on their way to and from Matthaei, clearing the path for the Gardens to connect to Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and beyond in a truly groundbreaking way.

The paved trail will be bigger than the sum of its parts, delivering multiple benefits to the community and to the Botanical Gardens. Safe travel is just one of those benefits. The stretch of Dixboro Road between Parker Mill County Park and Matthaei Botanical Gardens is no walk—or bike ride—in the park. Shoulderless, pitted, and traffic-laden, Dixboro Road from Parker Mill to the Gardens is unpleasant and downright dangerous for bicyclists and walkers.

The proposed Matthaei Botanical Gardens trail 
in green showing its connection to Parker Mill Park 
and the Border to Border Trail.
When finished the path will wend its way through a green quilt quite off the beaten path of Dixboro, inviting walkers and bicyclists to enjoy otherwise inaccessible ecosystems. From the trail, travelers will see quiet forests, rolling hills, and wildlife such as butterflies and birds. The trail also aligns with one of our priorities: creating nonmotorized transportation connecting U-M’s central and north campuses to Matthaei.

Not only is the trail a strategic priority for Matthaei, it’s also a critical connector identified in Washtenaw County and Ann Arbor Township’s 5-year plans. And the trail is part of Governor Snyder’s newly announced Iron-Belle Trail, which will stretch all the way from Belle Isle to Ironwood, eighteen miles south of Lake Superior.
Collaboration between the University and Township has been key. And while the University owns the land, only local governments are eligible to receive certain construction grants. Mike Moran, Township supervisor, has been a deeply committed partner. We wouldn’t have been able to get this far without his support.

In March the trail took a huge step forward: the Township and U-M received word of a conditional commitment of $1.2 million in MDOT’s Transportation Alternative Funds toward the $2.5 million total project cost. This, on top of the $250,000 already committed by Washtenaw County Parks and Rec, $50,000 from our corporate neighbor National Sanitation Foundation, $100,000 from Matthaei-Nichols, $50,000 from Ann Arbor Township, and $300,000 in other outstanding requests, have put the trail within reach.

Moran is already looking to the future. “I hope to continue the U-M-Ann Arbor Township partnership to build a trail from Matthaei to Plymouth Road once the Geddes to Matthaei portion is complete,” says Moran.

A non-motorized trail will provide
an alternative to taking the car for
100 student groups, 350 students, 38 U-M
groups logging over 3,250 volunteers hours at
the Campus Farm, and the 140,000 people who
visit Matthaei Botanical Gardens each year

We are close, very close, to making the dream of a hiking and biking trail connecting Matthaei with points in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and beyond a reality. Now we’re reaching out to individuals, Matthaei-Nichols members, businesses, and corporations to bridge the gap between the funding in place and the amount needed to go ahead with trail construction.

The funding gap is about $550,000 if outstanding applications come through. To close that gap we’ll be turning to you. The goal is to raise the remaining funds by December 2015 to allow construction to begin in the summer of 2016.

We hope you’ll join us in raising the $550,000 needed to make this trail a reality. Click here to make a contribution. To learn more or make a contribution by phone, please contact Matthaei-Nichols Associate Director Karen Sikkenga: or Director of Development Gayle Steiner: gayles@umich.edu734.647.7847.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Grant Funds Completion of Working Studio in Matthaei-Nichols Bonsai Garden

Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum is one step closer to putting the finishing touches on its new Bonsai and Penjing Garden, thanks to a $13,500 award from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. The award paves the way for completion of a horticultural studio space in the garden, which opened in 2013. The money will be used to purchase key elements for better functionality, convenience, comfort, and beauty, including wheeled carts, studio tables, enhanced lighting, water runoff technology, tools, and other supplies.

The Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust's commitment to public horticulture education dovetails perfectly with the purpose of the Bonsai and Penjing Garden horticultural studio at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, says Matthaei-Nichols director Bob Grese. Only a few public gardens include bonsai and penjing collections, “and the opportunity for this kind of interactive horticulture education, even at the culture-rich University of Michigan, is rare.”

A panoramic view of the central pavilion just days before the Bonsai Garden
opened in 2013.
Beyond the beauty of the plants and garden themselves, education is key, Grese explains. Bonsai and penjing are quintessential ornamental horticultural specimens that the public enjoys but might not always understand, he says. “By integrating the work area into the public garden we can enrich our visitors’ understanding ofdisplay standards and the effort and care bonsai require to reach exceptional levels of ornamental quality.” The final construction elements will expand the public workspace and make the space more convenient, comfortable and secure so that staff and volunteers can focus on training the best plants for ornamental excellence, he adds. “The studio, together with the new garden space, will truly open a window into the art of bonsai and penjing.”

Matthaei-Nichols staff member Carmen Leskoviansky works on
a bonsai tree during the open house at Matthaei August 3, 2014.
Funds from the Stanley Smith Horticulral Trust will pay for tools
and supplies so that staff, volunteers, and bonsai experts can work
on the trees in view of the public.

Matthaei-Nichols has nurtured a growing collection of trees for over 35 years. The collection began in 1977 with a gift of core specimens from the estate of Dr. Maurice Seevers, a former director of the University of Michigan Department of Pharmacology and an ardent bonsai lover. Since then the collection has grown to more than 70 trees and includes plants from regionally and internationally recognized bonsai artists Melvin Goldstein, William Heston, Jack Sustic, Howard Wright, and Jack Wikle. Visiting bonsai masters have also worked on the trees.

The Bonsai and Penjing Garden offers a unique opportunity to experience the sense of beauty, inner peace, and reverence for nature that often accompany these miniature forms of trees. Until the garden was completed in 2013, however, only three of the trees in the collection were on display at any one time in a special space inside the temperate house of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens conservatory. The majority of the collection lived behind the scenes, with no space available for its public display. The new outdoor garden greatly expands the viewing and educational training area and provides a restful setting for the public to enjoy as many as 18 specimens representing several leading Midwestern and internationally-recognized bonsai artists.

A summer view of the central pavilion and studio in the Bonsai
and Penjing Garden at Matthaei.
The Bonsai & Penjing Garden was financed completely through private donations. Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum has launched a campaign to build an endowment to fund ongoing care for the trees in the collection. The endowment is currently at approximately $190,000—nearly 25% of the goal of $800,000. Donations to the endowment are always welcome. For more information contact the Matthaei-Nichols director of development Gayle Steiner (734-647-7847; or visit the Matthaei-Nichols website ( and click on “Give/Major Gift Priorities.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Giant Troll Spotted on Property

All kinds of creatures live at the botanical gardens and arboretum. We can now count a troll among them, thanks to students in assistant professor Osman Khan’s Contemporary Sculpture 260 class in the Stamps School of Art & Design. Last fall they constructed a 10-foot-tall replica of the fright-wigged and bug-eyed troll doll originally created by Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam in 1959.

The troll measured approximately
13 feet high when finished.

The project challenged the students on several levels, says Khan. First, it exposed them to how the object being sculpted changes or stays relevant for today’s society, he explains, including the shift from “traditional objects of sculpture such as deities, heroes, and idols to the more contemporary objects of concern for the everyday.” As for why they picked the troll, Khan asked the students to bring in something they thought could be scaled up. After reviewing the possibilities, “they all agreed on the troll, mainly due to their own shared memories of having one or playing with one when they were young.”

Khan also hoped the students would take away an important lesson about thrift and simplicity—that making a large object doesn’t have to be expensive, complicated, or require a ton of marble or other challenging material (this troll is mostly made from Styrofoam). “Easily available and relatively inexpensive materials can be used to work on a large scale,” Khan says.

Students in Osman Khan's Contemporary Sculpture 260 class
stand in front of the completed troll in the fairy
and troll Hollow in Nichols Arboretum.

The students also showed a lot of ingenuity and inventiveness in using digital and analog technologies such as a 3D scanner and software to scale the troll in virtual space and then trace dimensions accurately on sections of foam.

Experimenting with technologies, materials, and methods of building was the most interesting part of the project for Maya Crosman, a BFA junior in Stamps. “Each part of the process has been instructive, as there was no straightforward way to create our sculpture,” she says. No one in the class, Crosman explains, had ever made something as large as the troll doll. In fact, the class is the first of its kind. “We problem-solved as a team throughout the whole process, finding ways to scale-up the small rubber troll doll into a sculpture over ten feet.”

Someone vandalized the troll shortly before Thanksgiving,
making off with one of her feet and an arm. Quite a bit of
the hair was broken, too.
Editor’s note: We’re sad to report that just before Thanksgiving the troll was vandalized. Staff  members found her toppled over and missing a foot and an arm. We’re hopeful that whoever did this will return the pieces so the troll can be restored. In the meantime, a discussion is underway about what will happen next. Stay tuned as the story of the troll continues!