A grant makes possible an elegant solution for rebuilding and restoring the Jean Avis Wilson Native Orchid Garden. Read story about the gift, the garden, and the plans to rejuvenate our nataive orchid garden.

Update, April 12, 2017:
Thanks to Ford volunteers, Matthaei-Nichols staff and volunteers, and U-M student workers for your amazing help with the Jean Avis Wilson Native Orchid Garden in the Great Lakes Garden at Matthaei. Also to Ann Arbor Farm & Garden for their gift to cover the costs of the materials and plants that will go into the special boxes we built to grow native orchids. 

In all we filled over 10 orchid boxes with soil that will soon support 8 species of native orchids. This work included creating 5 different soil mixes, re-positioning and leveling 5 boxes, and installing a drainage system in 6 boxes to support bog orchids. 

We have now completed filling the 8 boxes that will support fen orchids. We have another volunteer workday on Saturday to fill the remainder of the bog orchid boxes.

Even gardeners devoted to growing native plants might be surprised to learn that 57 species of native orchids are found in Michigan—and that many of these orchids grow in remote or relatively inaccessible habitats, such as fens or bogs. Thanks to a $12,000 grant and an ingenious orchid-cultivation concept, visitors will soon enjoy a rare view of some of those native orchids in the Jean Avis Wilson Native Orchid Garden.
The grant comes from Ann Arbor Farm & Garden, a longtime Matthaei-Nichols supporter whose founder Mildred Hague Matthaei was, along with her husband Frederick Matthaei Sr., the driving force behind the gift that provided the land for what became Matthaei Botanical Gardens. 

Theses boxes were designed and built by Matthaei-Nichols staff
and volunteers. Great Lakes native orchids wil grow in them,
and the boxes will help prevent the orchids from flooding in
this low-lying area.

A Great Lakes native pink lady-slipper orchid

A Great Lakes native showy lady-slipper orchid

A Great Lakes native grass pink orchid.

A Great Lakes native yellow lady-slipper orchid.

Jean Avis Wilson was a local gardener and active participant in the University of Michigan’s Continuing Education for Women program. Her husband Richard Avis Wilson and daughter Christy Klim contributed the initial funds for the garden. (As we went to print we learned that Richard Wilson had recently passed away.)

The orchid garden is one of five spaces within the Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei. This unique garden concept showcases not only the plants native to the region but the habitats in which they live. Touring the garden, visitors see and learn about our native plants and gain a new appreciation for these often rare plants’ one-of-a-kind habitats.

Initial plans for the orchid garden called for planting the orchids directly in the ground along with background vegetation to allow visitors to see the orchids and their related flora, says Matthaei-Nichols’ director Bob Grese. “The site has natural groundwater seepagethroughout the year, which led us to think this would be a good site for featuring native orchids,” he explains. When the site flooded several years in a row, Grese realized a different strategy was required to ensure the orchids’ success.

Mike Kost, Matthaei-Nichols’ curator of native plants, helped design the garden and choose the native orchids. Kost initially thought of planting the orchids in tree stumps or on hummocks. But that wouldn’t solve the problem of future flooding, he says. “Then I came up with the idea of individual boxes.” After he and Grese designed the orchid planters, Matthaei-Nichols’ Collections and Natural Areas Specialist Tom O’Dell determined the best materials to use and how to build them. When the design and materials were complete, volunteers extraordinaire Tim Schafer and Richard Vix began building the cedar-wood boxes. The varying-size boxes will elevate the orchids above the level of future flood waters. The boxes also make it easier to control the complex soil variations that some orchids need, Kost explains.

“Many of our rare and most beloved native wildflowers are seen as off-limits for horticultural gardens,” Grese says. While many people have long enjoyed photographs of these rare wildflowers, he adds, fewer have been able to experience them firsthand because so many of them grow in fragile wetland environments that are hard to reach. “This is a conservation garden in the truest sense,” says Grese. “It’s meant to inspire visitors by the beauty of these unique and rare plants and to build support for conserving the special places where these plants still exist.”

Ford workday volunteers along with Matthaei-Nichols staff, students, and volunteers, help fill and plant the orchid boxes on Tuesday, April 11, 2017: