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. 
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.”

After 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!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Well-Versed: Exhibit Explores Nature-Poetry Connections

The ancient link between poetry and nature is on display at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum in the exhibit “Letters & Leaves – Nature as Inspiration for Poetry.” The exhibit, which takes place in the conservatory and throughout Matthaei and outdoors in Nichols Arboretum, highlights poems by established writers and by U-M students. Also featured is an installation of nature-inspired photography by U-M students and staff, and community members. Exhibit runs Nov. 29-Jan. 4.

The Tunnel, by Hilda Havlik, retired occupational therapist

Giants, by Jochen Schacht
Professor of Biological Chemistry, UM Medical School

Misty Sunrise, by John Wirth, MAtthaei-Nichols member
Poetry’s deep ties to nature made for plentiful connections to the Arb and Gardens, says Catriona Mortell-Windecker, education program manager at Matthaei-Nichols. While initial plans encompassed the larger field of nature-inspired writing, poetry offers a concise response to our interaction with nature in a moment or a place, she adds. “And with poetry we could narrow a wide field and still offer the intensity of the physical experience of the conservatory and the Arboretum together with some great verse.”

Even if poetry might not be regular reading material for some visitors, Mortell-Windecker says the exhibit aims for an experience that “begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” as poet Robert Frost wrote. “Our hope is that through the broad sampling of poems on display and the botanical environment visitors will find something that speaks to them.”

The exhibit has evolved into a rewarding collaboration between the Arb and Gardens and faculty and students in the university’s English department, says Mortell-Windecker. And it’s also in part the product of an 8-month internship for English major Andrew Miller. The LSA senior and budding writer has been a decision-maker on the exhibit planning committee, researching and selecting the published poets on display, soliciting poetry from the larger student body, and consulting with faculty throughout the process. Partnerships with faculty have been key as well. Larry Goldstein, Professor of English and editor of The Michigan Quarterly, offered advice and guidance, as did Residential College lecturer Virginia Murphy.

The exhibit culminates in a poetry reading on December 10 by U-M faculty Keith Taylor and Lorna Goodison. Taylor, a longtime friend of the Arboretum and Gardens and an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Michigan, will read a selection of work including a poem he wrote for the opening of the Great Lakes Gardens last year at Matthaei. Given her upcoming retirement from the English department, Goodison’s appearance at the reading offers the rare opportunity to hear one of the Caribbean’s most distinguished contemporary poets.

Letters & Leaves also offers attractions beyond poetry and photography. An Open House on November 29 kicks off the exhibit with greens and seasonal items in the gift shop and the annual Spinner’s Flock fiber arts sale. On December 6 from 10 am-noon children and their parents are invited to “Wonders of Winter,” a craft and wreath-making workshop. Father Christmas visits on December 20 from noon until 2 (free); Plus, throughout the exhibit run there will be a seasonal flower display in the conservatory, a series of trees decorated with hand-crafted ornaments relating to the Letters & Leaves theme, a display of faerie houses; and spontaneous poetry-writing opportunities for all visitors. Call or visit the Matthaei-Nichols website for details.

Exhibit: Letters & Leaves – Nature as Inspiration for Poetry
Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum

Nov. 29 through Jan. 4

Open daily, 10 am-4:30 pm; Wednesdays until 8 pm. Closed Christmas Eve and Day and New Year’s Eve. Open New Year’s day 10 am-4:30 pm. Free admission.

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

Behind-the-Scenes Green

What’s thriving in the greenhouses at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Megan Barnes, Horticulture Intern

Some of the plants in the greenhouses at Matthaei Botanical Gardens
There’s plenty to see in the conservatory, display gardens, and natural areas at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. But there’s also a lot of action behind the scenes to keep the gardens beautiful and valuable to the University of Michigan community, Matthaei-Nichols’ members, and to the public. Since it isn’t possible to display the Arb and Gardens’ entire collection all at once, five greenhouses at the botanical gardens are loaded with surprises.

Some plants are in training, so to speak, waiting for a coveted spot in the conservatory or the display gardens. While othersas part of the many interesting research projects conducted by U-M faculty and students that take place in the greenhousesaren't meant for public display. Other plants might might not currently be giving their most beautiful display, or are newly acquired and still adjusting to life as Wolverines. Here’s a sneak peek and a spotlight on some extraordinary plants that are found behind the scenes in the greenhouses at Matthaei.

As a summer 2014 intern in the horticulture collections department, I had the opportunity to care for many plants not often seen in Michigan. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Guatemala, I was delighted to be reunited (where I least expected) with some of my tropical favorites. Within the tropical and semitropical collection, these special specimens from all over the world appeal to the senses and the sciences. Among them are

·         Cananga odorata var. fruticosa (Dwarf Ylang-Ylang)—this fast growing tropical tree from the Philippines is famous for being an ingredient in Chanel No. 5 perfume.
Cananga odorata var. fruticosa (Dwarf Ylang-Ylang)

Phyla scaberrima (Aztec sweet herb)—this sweet-smelling leafy plant has been used in Mexico and Central America as a sweetener and as a medicine for respiratory illnesses.

·        Carica papaya (papaya)—a source of delicious fruit and vitamin A, this tree from the tropics of the Americas is also used medicinally as a treatment for malaria, dengue, and digestive problems.
Carica papaya (papaya)

·        Guaiacum sanctum (holywood)—this strong-timbered tree produces lovely blue flowers and is native to Florida, where it is classified as endangered thanks to overharvesting.

·        Matelea cyclophylla—a Mexican native hard to find in cultivation, this flowering vine is lovely and unique; it is known for its corky caudex, or “fat” basal stem structure. 
Matelea cyclophylla

The greenhouses house several more-familiar plants, too. And they’re available to researchers for experiments on varied and fascinating topics. U-M faculty and students are studying a population of weedy morning glories to see how they may be developing resistance to herbicides.

A group of morning glory plants are
part of a 
U-M faculty research project.

Ant Plants
Another fascinating class of specimens tucked away in the greenhouses is an impressive collection of ant plants (mostly Myrmecodia and Hydnophytum). 

Pictured, top to bottom: ant plants.

These are tropical epiphytic plants boasting a swollen, hollowed-out caudex or stem that is useful in forming a symbiotic relationship with ants, who use the tunnels for housing, while providing protection and food (from their waste) to the plant. Perhaps you’ve spotted them in the conservatory, but there are hundreds more specimens behind the scenes at Matthaei. The collection also contains a Hydnophytum formicarium grown from seeds that are said to have fallen from a tree in Singapore’s famous Central Catchment Reserve. A lively discourse in ant plants, as well as a stream of trades and gifts of seeds, comes out of Matthaei’s greenhouses thanks to a donor of the plants and “ant plant guy” and Matthaei-Nichols’ volunteer Frank Omilian, who cares for the impressive ant plant collection. From keeping slugs away from his ant-friendly ferns (Lecanopteris) to the constant battle with hungry greenhouse-dwelling insects, raising these sometimes rare and not commonly cultivated plants is a challenge, but adds a unique character to Matthaei’s collections. 

Within the humid and bright intensity of the greenhouses at Matthaei, one can discover wonders not typically on display. A spectacular collection of pitcher plants, native plant seedlings getting ready for life outdoors, a few redwood seedlings, even indoor cattails with a special watering system greet a visitor to the greenhouses. Yet another reason to visit Matthaei Botanical Gardens— when they’re ready, many of these fascinating plants will finally make their debut to an enthusiastic public.

Megan Barnes, from Harbor Springs, MI, is a second-year graduate student in the Landscape Architecture program at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Megan Barnes

Monday, September 8, 2014

In These Branches, Birds Once Sang

By Joe Mooney

Vast numbers of passenger pigeons thrived for millennia in North America, many of them roosting in our region’s native trees. It seemed impossible that a creature so numerous could be wiped out. What conservation lessons can we learn from this remarkable bird, and what parallels to the plant world can we draw? 

Martha is dead,” the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on September 2, 1914. Martha, who had been living at the Cincinnati Zoo for 15 years, was the last living passenger pigeon in the world and an example of a population that once numbered in the billions.

A wood carving of a passenger pigeon by Mike Ford of Midland, Mich. The carving is on display at the Chippewa Nature Canter in Midland.

By many accounts, passenger pigeons flew overhead in flocks large enough to blot out the sun’s light, or roosted in trees in branch-snapping quantities. John James Audubon himself calculated a flock in Kentucky in 1813 to be more than a billion birds. When Martha died, an entire species died with her.

The passenger pigeon still stands today as one of the largest examples of human action as a major cause of whole-species extinction. The pigeon didn’t stand a chance against the insatiable demand for the birds as food or sport, according to A Passing in Cincinnati, a pamphlet published in 1976 in Washington, D.C., by the Office of Communications, Department of the Interior:

All kinds of firearms were used, but traps and nets claimed the greatest numbers of those mild-mannered birds—often in the hundreds or thousands at one time. They were so numerous in the early 1800s that one farmer once caught more than 2,000 simply by closing the door of his barn after the pigeons flew inside.

American colonists used nets as early as 1640 to take pigeons, and the practice was continued until the pigeon population was virtually exhausted….

Ceaseless slaughter and lack of protection proved the final undoing of the passenger pigeon. By 1886 only two     flocks were known to exist. According to A Passing in Cincinnati, in the late 1890s and early 1900s a few states had enacted laws to protect the pigeon, including Michigan, and some individuals made an effort to save the pigeon, but it was too late.

The University of Chicago sent the Cincinnati Zoo-logical Gardens a female pigeon in 1902. When Martha died in 1914 she was “suspended in water and frozen into three hundred pounds of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution. . . ”

A Cautionary Tale
In his book A Feathered River Across the Sky author Joel Greenberg writes, “Human beings destroyed passenger pigeons almost every time they encountered them, and they used every imaginable device in the process. . . . Whether a concerted effort could have reversed the decline and altered the outcome was a question asked far too late for any attempt to have even been tried. . . . It is hoped that this tragic extinction continues to engage people and to act as a cautionary tale so that it is not repeated.”

The implications of a keystone species—one that disproportionately impacts the structure of the ecosystem as a whole—going extinct is perhaps unknowable, observes Matthaei-Nichols natural areas manager Jeff Plakke.

“Probably the best illustrations of what can happen from over-exploitation in North America are the Dust Bowl and more locally, the Great Michigan Fire,” he says. (The Great Michigan Fire was a series of simultaneous forest fires in Michigan in 1871.) “Extinctions of a single species may be less dramatic, but could easily have cascading effects for centuries or millennia.” Plakke points out that the extirpation of beavers in southeast Michigan through hunting and trapping for pelts well illustrates that cascading effect. “Beavers are a prime example of a keystone species,” he explains. “They selectively harvest trees, build dams in creeks and streams, and create extensive acreages of open wetland communities. They significantly changed the hydrology and development of soils. Numerous species of plants, animals, birds, and insects depended on beaver to literally build these ecosystems.” Passenger pigeons were certainly a keystone species as well, continues Plakke. “Numbering into the billions, the pigeons must have had an enormous impact on the environment through their feeding and the movement of nutrients, nuts, and seeds through their migrations.”

Plant-World Parallels
Sheer numbers and the colorful spectacle of their flight made the passenger pigeon particularly vulnerable to exploitation. While plants don’t move in the same attention-grabbing way as birds and other animals, parallels can be drawn between their decline or demise.

A 225-year-old bur oak tree has lived on what is now the Matthaei Botanical Gardens since George Washginton was president. This tree, which would have been 100 years old in the late 19th centeury, likely provided food and shelter for the passenger pigeon.

Some groups of plants once constituted entire ecosystems unto themselves. “The prairies and oak openings of North America are good examples of ecosystems that have nearly disappeared,” says Matthaei-Nichols director Bob Grese. “Many of the plants associated with those ecosystems are now quite rare.”

A prairie and savanna management guide prepared by the Michigan Natural Features Inventory for the state DNR wildlife division cites a study estimating that just .02% of the Midwest’s original savanna remains, “declining from around 11 to 13 million acres to just a few hundred acres spread across a dozen states.” The report goes on to say that the loss of savanna in Michigan is most dramatic in the oak openings communities, which have declined from an estimated 900,000 acres to just 3, a loss of 99.9996%.

Some individual plant species are also at risk, notes Grese. “American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a good example of a plant popular in herbal medicine that has become quite rare because of over-collecting. It is currently listed as ‘threatened’ in the state of Michigan,” a status that offers some protection for the plant, he says.

University of Michigan students working on a geographic information systems (GIS) “grandfather tree” project several years ago mapped and measured over 50 oaks on the Matthaei property estimated to be more than 200 years old. One bur oak at Matthaei (Quercus macrocarpa, pictured at left) is 45 inches in diameter and approximately 225 years old, according to a method for measuring a tree’s age developed by the International Society of Arboriculture. By that estimation the oak would have already been 100 years old in the late 1800s. It’s very likely that this oak and others on our lands here provided shelter and food to the passenger pigeon.

Parts of a Whole
As the late Burton Barnes, professor in the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment once observed, “we are parts dependent on the whole earth for our existence.”

The demise of the passenger pigeon is a graphic reminder of the drastic impacts humans can have on the environment, says Grese. “To know that the most plentiful bird species in North America and the one most associated with the oak forests and oak openings of southern Michigan could go extinct within 100 years is a humbling reminder of the need for conservation.”

As we become more aware of the rare plant and animal species found on the properties managed by Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum we are working hard to steward the unique habitats that contain them, Grese continues, so “creating a greater understanding of the threats rare species and regional ecosystems face is clearly something key for an arboretum and botanical garden like us.”

Exhibits & Resources

Museums and institutions on the U-M campus and elsewhere in Michigan are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon with special exhibits and displays. In the botanical realm, for an immersive experience of some of the special spaces that protect or recreate the region’s rare or threatened habitats and ecosystems, such as prairies or the Great Lakes Gardens, visit Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum. For a map of some of our “grandfather” trees, visit Following is a list of organizations featuring passenger pigeon exhibits. For a full list, visit and click on Michigan.

Passenger pigeon exhibits:

Passenger Pigeon Exhibit: University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, Fourth Floor Gallery  

Moving Targets: Passenger Pigeon Portrait Gallery, Enviro Art Gallery, University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, Dana Building  

They Passed Like a Cloud: Extinction and the Passenger Pigeon

Michigan State University Museum  

Recommended reading:

A Feathered River Across the Sky, by Joel Greenberg (Bloomsbury)

Passenger Pigeons: Gone Forever, by Vic Eichler (Shantimira)

Online Resources:, an international effort to familiarize people with the history of the passenger pigeon and its extinction, raise awareness of how the issue of extinction is relevant to the 21st century, and support respectful relationships with other species.