Hidden Lake Gardens a tree-lined treasure for nature enthusiasts


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

For those who have read “The Hidden Life of Trees,” an international bestseller by author Peter Wohlleben, a trip to Hidden Lake Gardens qualifies as an absolute must if you want to understand “what they feel, how they communicate.”

A German forester, Wohlleben is a big believer that “a tree can only be as strong as the forest that surrounds it,” which is a theme that runs throughout the first book in his “The Mysteries of Nature Trilogy.”

His theory that a “forest is a social network” is on full display at Hidden Lake Gardens, a 755-acre feast for the eyes in the nearby Irish Hills. The arboretum was donated by Adrian businessman Harry A. Fee to Michigan State University in 1945 and forever will serve as his “dream as you go development.”

Fee, according to the “Brief History” of Hidden Lake Gardens provided by MSU, purchased the lake and 200 acres surrounding it upon his retirement in 1926. Years later he began planting nursery stock on the property in an effort to create a “series of pictures” visible from various vistas scattered throughout the parcel. It was his wish, according to MSU officials, that the “Gardens be for the benefit and education of the public” and he reportedly was actively involved in such decision-making until his death in 1955.

A substantial portion of the property, which through subsequent land purchases has more than tripled in size, is a magnificent collection of trees and shrubs, including flowering crabapples, beeches, lindens, maples, oaks, and a variety of evergreens. An incredible Bonsai Collection is an added treat, as is “Hosta Hillside,” which features more than 700 varieties of the shade-loving plants.

This fall, phase one of a “Reach for the Sky” Canopy Walk is scheduled to open, which eventually will treat visitors to “unique 360-degree views of Hidden Lake Gardens: the lake and pond, the hills and kettle holes, the gardens and plant collections,” according to officials.

Perhaps the real gem at Hidden Lake is the Justin “Chub” Harper Collection of Dwarf and Rare Conifers, which is widely regarded as one of the finest and “most extensive” collections of conifers in the United States. Located near the Nature Conservatory, the collection spills across a 5-acre site and includes more than 600 specimens, cultivars of pines, firs, spruces, larches, hemlocks, false cypress, arborvitae, and junipers.

Harper, who died in 2009, was a renowned horticulturist, and formerly was the grounds maintenance supervisor for John Deere at its corporate headquarters in Moline, Ill. In 1981, Harper donated the bulk of his collection to Hidden Lake, a gift that involved a mammoth undertaking of digging, transporting, and transplanting.

In following years, Harper regularly made the 400-mile trek from Moline to Hidden Lake to check on the status of his beloved conifers, including a particularly memorable trip in 2004. 

That year, after his wife Anna passed away following a battle with cancer, Harper and several friends spread her ashes throughout the conifer collection in accordance with her wishes. As the group was about to leave, they reportedly “sensed a presence among them,” according to Dr. Bert Cregg, author of a 2007 story on Harper that appeared in The Michigan Landscape magazine.

“As they turned around,” wrote Cregg, “they noticed the weeping Norway spruce behind them formed the perfect silhouette of an angel, complete with halo and wings. Several newspapers picked up the story and the legend of the ‘Angel of Hidden Lake Gardens’ was born.”

It’s a story, no doubt, that noted nature author Wohlleben would fully appreciate, perhaps serving as further validation of how trees “speak to the mind, and tell us many good things, and teach us many good lessons.”

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