The Botanical Gardens on Iroquois
Author: Grace Shackman
Primroses, Chinese chestnuts, and pinochle in the boiler room
Since 1960, the U-M Botanical Gardens have been on Dixboro Road straddling Superior and Ann Arbor townships. But for forty-five years before that, they were in the heart of what is now Ann Arbor’s south side. The fifty-two-acre gardens off Iroquois, now Woodbury Gardens apartments, played an important part in university life from 1916 to 1961.
“It was not landscaped for beauty but for [growing] specific plants,” recalls Chuck Cares, who later landscaped the present gardens. “There were pretty plants, of course, but no aesthetic principle was involved.”
“Plants were grown for research, university classes, and decorations for university functions,” explains Dorothy Blanchard, whose mother, Frieda Blanchard, was assistant director from 1919 to 1956. Though “it was not a place for the general public,” Blanchard says, “visitors did occasionally come out and were shown around by Mother.”
The university’s first botanical garden was planted on the Diag in 1897, near what is today the Graduate Library. In 1906 it moved to the newly acquired Arboretum. In 1913, finding the Arb’s hilly terrain not conducive to growing plants in controlled conditions, the university bought the Iroquois site.
Harry Gleason, the new garden’s first director, wrote that it was “located immediately beyond the city limits south of Ann Arbor, near the Packard street road, and comprises twenty acres of level fertile land.” As surrounding parcels were purchased, the gardens grew to 51.72 acres.
Harley H. Bartlett replaced Gleason in 1919. “The chief thing that attracted me to the University of Michigan before I knew what a generally delightful place Ann Arbor was, was the new botanical gardens, which would provide perhaps the best facility in the country for work in genetics and plant breeding,” Bartlett wrote in his 1923 Harvard alumni report.
Bartlett was born in Montana in 1886, graduated from Harvard with a chemistry degree, and then worked as a chemical biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While in Washington he became interested in the work of Dutch botanist Hugo DeVries on evolution and began to research the genetics of genus Oenothera, an evening primrose. He accepted an assistant professorship at the U-M in 1915 and, as soon as he could, planted rows of Oenothera at the new botanical gardens to continue his research.
“The development of the garden has been my chief interest since coming to Michigan,” Bartlett claimed in the alumni report--an impressive claim, considering his many competing interests. “A Renaissance man, he [Bartlett] knew a little about everything,” recalls Ed Voss, emeritus professor of botany. “If you asked a question, he’d give you a reference off the top of his head.” In addition to directing the gardens, Bartlett chaired the botany department, taught classes, frequently traveled to Asia and Latin America to collect rare plants, published prolifically, and was much in demand as a consultant to federal agencies.
Bartlett’s secret was that he had accepted the gardens’ directorship on the condition that
graduate student Frieda Cobb be appointed the assistant director. While Bartlett dealt with the
public and with the university administration, Cobb managed the gardens’ day-to-day operations,
taking over completely during Bartlett’s frequent absences. “She kept things at an even keel,”
Frieda Cobb had come to the U-M at Bartlett’s suggestion and was working on her Ph.D., continuing his Oenothera research. They had met through her brother, Victor Cobb, a classmate of Bartlett’s at Harvard. She arrived in Ann Arbor in 1916 and in 1920 was the first of Bartlett’s students to earn her doctorate. Two years later she married Frank Blanchard, a herpetologist whom she had met in graduate school.
The actual work of growing the plants was done by a series of excellent gardeners, the last of whom, from 1935 on, was Walter Kleinschmidt, who was promoted to superintendent. Part of his job was tending the rare plants brought back from various expeditions. “He was good at growing plants--discovering what was needed. For instance, he figured out how to grow ferns from spores,” recalls Dorothy Blanchard. Kleinschmidt lived with his wife and daughter in a house on the grounds. He supervised about four other gardeners, who took responsibility for specific greenhouses. “The workers, Walter and his group, played pinochle in the boiler room every noon,” recalls Peter Kaufman, who was hired as curator of the gardens in 1956.
The gardens closest to the greenhouse were arranged in a big oval and were dubbed “the graveyard,” according to Kaufman, “because of their arrangement in horizontal beds divided by family and genus.” The land beyond the graveyard was used for specific research projects, such as Eileen Erlanson’s wild roses, Kenneth Jones’s ragweed, and Stanley Cain’s delphinium. Dow Baxter, a forest pathologist from the forestry department, grew Chinese chestnuts, trying to come up with a disease-resistant strain to replace the American chestnut.
Felix Gustafson’s tomato plants loom large in everyone’s memory, because he gave his extras to staff members. “I’d take them and eat them off the vine. They were marvelous,” recalls local pediatrician Mark Hildebrandt, who worked at the gardens as a teenager. Blanchard, who rode her bike to work before getting a car, learned to ride no-handed so she could eat tomatoes on the way home.
The greenhouses provided a year-round source of plants for botany classes and faculty research. Flowers were also grown there for special university occasions, such as commencements or honors convocations or visits from dignitaries like Haile Selassie and the queen of the Netherlands.
The nucleus of the gardens’ collection of cacti and other succulents was assembled by Elzada Clover, a botany professor who had done work in the Southwest and Central America. In January 1938 Bartlett recorded in his diary that “Elzada Clover has a wild plan for a trip through the can[y]on of the Colorado. She assures me it will be a truly scientific venture.” Clover and a friend, Mary Lois Jotter, completed their “wild plan,” earning the distinction of being the first women to make the trip by boat. In 1952 Clover added another first: being the first person to develop and teach an entire class at the botanical gardens. It was a very popular undergraduate course, and according to a history put out by the botanical gardens, “through it many students were led to concentrate in botany.”
In 1955 Bartlett reached retirement age and was succeeded by A. Geoffrey Norman. Five years later the gardens moved to their present site on Dixboro. “We moved as many trees as we could,” recalls Peter Kaufman. “Some spreading junipers didn’t take, but most of what we moved did. We took all the rare stuff that we had collected.” The new gardens were named after regent Fred Matthaei Sr., who donated the land.
The 350-acre Matthaei gardens are seven times as large as the Iroquois site and have more than twice as much greenhouse space--44,000 square feet. The other main difference is that at the present gardens there is much more public involvement, with hiking trails, adult education classes, meeting space, and an active friends group.
The Iroquois site remained empty for most of the 1960s. Helen Corey, who lived on Iroquois in a house backing up to the gardens, used to walk her dogs on the deserted site which she remembers as “an oasis in the middle of the city.” Although the gardens were in ruins and the buildings falling apart, she recalls, there were still “nice trees, some fruit-bearing.”
In 1969 the first stage of the Woodbury Gardens apartments was built. In honor of the former use, the developers named the streets Aster and Wisteria. Residents still enjoy at least nine kinds of trees originally planted in the botanical gardens, including Dow’s Chinese chestnuts.
[Photo caption from book]: The original botanical gardens were right on campus in front of the old library, about where the Graduate Library now sits. “Courtesy Bentley Historical Library”
[Photo caption from book]: Dorothy Blanchard’s kindergarten class looking at the giant chrysanthemums in one of the Iroquois site greenhouses, 1930s. Although not generally open to the public, Blanchard obviously had pull since her mother was the assistant director. “Courtesy Dorothy Blanchard”