My trip back from Michigan (East Lansing) on Friday involved a stop at Fernwood Botanical Gardens and Nature Preserve near Niles, MI. I worked at Fernwood back in 1996 thru 1998 prior to moving to Janesville to start at RBG. Fernwood is situated on a sloping, 105 acre site that sits along the scenic St. Joseph River in that area. See www.fernwoodbotanical.org/ for more information on this wonderful facility. The gardens proper only take up about 8 acres of the site with the remainder left as natural woodland, wetlands, a large arboretum and a 5 acre prairie restoration. I was struck by the new railroad garden (see included photos) that was quite extensive in scale and located in what was the Children's Garden when I was there. It had poured buckets prior to my arrival and while everything was saturated, the railway volunteers (some old-timers) had the trains up and running.
The woods are unbelievable in spring with trilliums, lady's slippers and a full carpet of spring ephemerals. This site was never logged so there are some mammoth trees. The overhead canopy includes some enormous oaks (Quercus), American beech (Fagus grandifolia)., tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera) with an understory of sassafras, pawpaw (Asimina triloba), redbud (Cercis), spicebush (Lindera) and other natives. The prairie is top notch and the arboretum was originally planted with help from staff of the Morton Arboretum many years in the past. Fernwood was originally the home of Walter & Kay Boydston. Kay was known for her dabbling with ferns (she planted over 10,000 at the gardens) and she created many of her own crosses and hybrids. The gardens were opened to the public in the 1960s with the help of the Plym family and the site also includes a great nature center (still run by the extraordinary Wendy Jones), the winter house and summer house (both used for occasional events) and an art studio. There is also a small fern conservatory in the visitors center as well (also had trains). When I first took the job at Fernwood, I lived in the Winter House which was a small home on site that was used by the caretaker back in the 50s. I lived there for about four months and had no TV which was perfect. Being right on the grounds, I took lots of walks, read plenty of books and really enjoyed my solitary existence. Some of Kay Boydston's old writings and book collection were located in the home so I started trying to piece together where she had planted certain things out in the woods. It is a special place. I enjoyed the visit and while some things had changed, many things looked the same. I hope their Director of Horticulture, Steve, gets the budget he needs to continue to maintain and improve the garden areas as there is a lot of history in need of preservation and some very important plants that will need to be maintained and protected. In the lowest photo, you'll see the white blooming panicled hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata) to the left. That is where I wrenched my back 15 years ago loading up crabapple logs from a removed tree. My back has never been the same but I did enjoy maintaining that border and the herb garden in the distance (with the dovecote structure). I had four gardens to maintain and while we had volunteers, they weren't as numerous as they are at RBG.