By Lauren Payne

The Nature Academy is focused on training a new generation of environmental leaders in sustainability, conservation, and ecological restoration. As part of the Nature Academy program, each intern writes a blog post and develops a project. The project provides an opportunity to take on responsibility in an area of interest, contribute to the goals of their team, and develop a skill or area of knowledge that can be added to the intern’s portfolio. The post may reflect the project or be a nature-related topic of personal interest to the intern.

For many people, the appeal of a place like Matthaei Botanical Gardens lies in the brightly colored, fragrant, and recognizable flowers of the Gateway and perennial gardens. And I don’t blame them! Before I started here, I may have dismissed many of the plants in the Great Lakes Gardens due to my own lack of knowledge of their special characteristics and place within the ecosystem. After spending half a summer caring for these spaces, however, I now recognize many of the native plants and appreciate them for their ecological importance and rarity.

Armed with this newfound knowledge, I have elected to aim my summer project at helping the public recognize and engage with native plants by creating a portable walking guide for the Great Lakes Gardens. This self-guide will include photos of plants, common and scientific names, conservation status, and a short blurb. My goal in making this guide is not only to increase engagement with the Great Lakes Gardens, but to inspire visitors to appreciate and care for our region’s native communities and species after they leave our properties. 


For many people, the appeal of a place like Matthaei Botanical Gardens lies in brightly colored, fragrant, and recognizable flowers in bloom.

Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei

An autumn view of the Great Lakes Gardens alvar section by Matthaei-Nichols Associate Curator Mike Kost.

Wet mesic prairie

Wet-mesic prairie. Photo by Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

The Great Lakes Gardens is an ideal space for education on species and communities endemic to the region and to the state of Michigan. Home to a variety of ecosystems and species that may be difficult (or even practically impossible) to find in the wild, the Great Lakes Gardens provides a unique immersive experience.

A prime example is the prairie garden section. Showcasing many grasses and wildflowers characteristic of the Great Lakes region, the prairie section of the Great Lakes Gardens showcases an ecosystem naturally found on glacial outwash plains and end moraines. Their desirability for agricultural use has made them one of the most threatened native communities in Michigan. Mesic prairies (prairies whose soil contains a moderate amount of moisture), have unfortunately been nearly completely lost in natural areas.

Historically occurring in southwest Michigan, these communities were dominated by big bluestem, little bluestem, and Indian grass. Animal life included organisms contributing to soil turning (moles, ants), large herbivores such as bison that primarily graze grasses and sedges, and a number of rare species ranging from the long-eared owl to spotted turtles (Michigan Natural Features Inventory). The remaining sites represent less than .1% of Michigan’s natural prairie and savanna acreage (Chapman & Brewer, 2008).

Another unique community is the dune garden. If you’ve ever visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, one of Michigan’s most popular tourist destinations, you may recognize this section nestled away in the Great Lakes Gardens and populated with various grasses and shrubs. Found largely along lower Michigan’s eastern shoreline, dunes were formed when sediments washed ashore were carried inland by strong lake-driven winds (Michigan Natural Features Inventory). One example of rare dune life is Cirsium pitcheri, commonly known as Pitcher’s thistle. This species is federally and state threatened due to human foot traffic and shoreline development (Great Lakes Research and Education Center).

Lakeside daisy (Tetraneuris herbacea), another rare species, is federally threatened and state endangered. Found in alvar pavement communities located on flat, exposed bedrock near northern Great Lakes shores, this is one resilient flower, growing in very little soil atop limestone bedrock and enduring the full force of the sun throughout hot Michigan summers. These communities are known only to occur in three areas of the world: the northern Great Lakes, the Baltic region of northern Europe, and select counties in northwest Ireland (Michigan Natural Features Inventory). That’s pretty special!

The above species and communities are only a fraction of the Great Lakes Gardens’ native species biodiversity, cultural, and ecological importance and beauty. It is my hope that by highlighting some of these wonderful features in a handy guide, I can inspire visitors to take Matthaei’s mission and apply it in their own lives to help maintain and conserve our natural areas.

Sleeping bear dunes

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Photo by

Pitchers thistle

Cirsium pitcheri (Pitcher’s thistle). Photo by Allen Woodliffe.

Lakeside daisy

Tetraneuris herbacea (Lakeside Daisy). Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Lauren Payne is originally from Dewitt, Michigan and is the Great Lakes Gardens summer 2019 intern. She is a rising junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Program in the Environment with a minor in ecology and evolutionary biology. After graduation she hopes to work in conservation ecology. Her favorite activities outside of work include hiking, camping, and petting dogs.

Lauren Payne