Get outdoors and explore

May 12, 2024

From historic structures to native species plants, Environmental Interpretive Center experts point out a few interesting finds you can see on the campus trails.

2002 alum Phil Tuxbury's children, Ronen (7) and Rebekah Tuxbury (8), looking at the former rose garden on the EIC land in May 2024
Children of 2002 alum Phil Tuxbury — Ronen and Rebekah Tuxbury, ages 7 and 8 — explore the former rose garden area on a walk in May 2024. Photo by Sarah Tuxbury

Looking above, there’s a bright blue indigo bunting from Central or South America making chirping sounds of “sweet sweet choo choo yum yum.” On the ground, mayapples — Clara Ford used to turn the ripened pulp of the fruit into jelly — are blooming. And right ahead is the Fair Lane Lake, with painted turtles on logs and great blue herons dipping in the water for fish.

Welcome to the Environmental Interpretive Center’s Orchard Trail, which visitors can access right near the Center’s covered picnic area.

On a recent walk down the Orchard Trail to the lake, EIC Program Coordinator and Interpretive Naturalist Dorothy McLeer pointed out interesting trail highlights that you might miss if you don’t know what you’re looking at. And this includes how the trail got its name.

EIC map
Here's the walk we took, starting at the EIC, which looks a bit like Texas on this map. No matter where you choose to explore, there's something to see in all areas outside of the EIC. You'll find a list of free guided walks at the end of the article.

“When Henry and Clara Ford owned the land, there were apple trees here. After Mrs. Ford’s passing in 1950, the funding to maintain the apple orchard went somewhere else — and time has given us this wonderful example of natural succession,” McLeer said. “Apple trees are pretty short, 30 feet at the most. Maple trees, which are here now, are often more than 70 feet. As we stand here, I like the shade from the maples, but, for a smaller plant, it might be a problem. The apple trees are now gone, outcompeted by these wonderful maples that we can tap to make maple syrup, as Henry Ford used to do.”

Here are a few more things you may see if you take Orchard Trail to Lakeside Trail, walk to Jens Jensen’s Meadow and cut through the trail to end up at Clara Ford’s Rose Garden. The walk takes about an hour, depending on your pace. 

View EIC and natural areas map.

The fuchsia-flowered tree near the picnic tables at the EIC

Although its blossoms are almost done, there is no missing the eastern redbud tree on the left side of the Environmental Interpretive Center. McLeer said initially its color grabs attention, but its family history may be even more intriguing. “What does this redbud have in common with sugar snap peas?” she asks. “They are both members of the pea family. If you look closely, the tree has pea pods.”

McLeer said nearly everywhere there’s a pink-hued flower, there will be a pod. But don’t pick the EIC tree when looking for a snack, she cautioned. The tree’s flowers are a favorite among hummingbirds, goldfinches, butterflies and bees. And a variety of EIC wildlife enjoy eating the Michigan native plant’s peapods. “This tree is like a grocery store for them. We have more nutritional options than the wildlife here, so let them enjoy,” she said. “Even though this one can’t offer you lunch, there are ways for you to still appreciate the tree. Not only is it beautiful, but the redbud tree still offers a nice shady place to relax and gives a front-row seat for you to see who visits the tree.”

A caged plant on the side of the lake

With its wine-colored flowers that bloom until mid-June, prairie trillium — which are native Michigan wildflowers— are striking and slowly grow up to a foot tall. But that’s not why they are caged off.

“Prairie trillium, known as Trillium recurvatum, are rare in Michigan. I don’t know another place where they grow naturally in our area. A biology faculty member, Judy Nesmith, found these about 10 years ago while taking out the Field Biology class,” McLeer said, adding that the plant is a Michigan species of special concern. “The cage is to protect it from trampling toes and hungry deer, while making it easier to point out to our classes and on trail walks.”

A family of geese
A family of geese enjoying Fair Lane Lake

Surrounding the prairie trillium are several bloodroot wildflowers (Sanguinaria canadensis). These ground-level plants, which are in the poppy family, have green-scalloped, lobed leaves and white-and-yellow flowers. But it’s what lies beneath the soil that gave the plant its name. “Bloodroot has a reddish-colored sap that comes out when its rhizome — which is a type of stem that grows underground — is cut open. Indigenous people who historically lived on this land used bloodroot as a dye, among other uses.”

When by the lake, also look for great blue herons [the EIC mascot], which frequently use the lake as a food resource, and painted turtles, the state reptile of Michigan.

“Fifth graders in Niles, Michigan, wrote to the state legislature and requested a state reptile. That’s how the painted turtle, which is native to Michigan, got its designation,” McLeer said. “This shows how speaking up about a change you want to see can make a difference.”

The area formerly known as Clara Ford’s Rose Garden

When planning for their future Fair Lane Estate, Henry and Clara Ford bought the 1,300 acres of land from several local  farming families, including the Ten Eycks and the Blacks, in 1908. They made changes to the property — one major transformation was this rose garden space. It was spread out over three acres and contained more than 10,000 rose bushes, tended by 20 full-time gardeners. 

This formal European-style garden was grand and attracted people from all over the world, McLeer said. However, not everyone appreciated the Rose Garden. Due to a contractual disagreement, famed landscape architect Jens Jenson, a proponent of native plantings who designed the other grounds of Fair Lane, resigned when he learned the rose garden was commissioned. The archive photo above is circa 1926. The image at the top of the article is what the rose garden area looks like today.

The formality of the rose garden is long gone, but the pond and stone gazebo remain. There are mallards sitting on nests in the pond’s reeds. Wildflowers are growing everywhere. The garden’s pond is used by many student groups to study aquatic insects and naturally occurring flora. “It’s now one of our most valuable study areas on the grounds, as far as teaching goes. We typically welcome about 2,000 kids a month from April to October on this property here. And those are the organized school groups,” McLeer said. “There’s always something to learn when coming out here. I’ve been at UM-Dearborn for more than 30 years, and these grounds are still teaching me new things.”

The stone bridge

There's a bridge made of boulders not far from the former rose garden, likely built circa 1920. The bridge's purpose was to create a walkway over the man-made drain for lake overflow. And that overflow water made for an outlet to the lake.

Henry Ford skating shed, circa 1920
The ice skating warming shed, built in 1920. Image courtesy/ Rick Simek

Something once on the spot, which isn't there now, was a large log cabin that the Fords built and used as an ice skating equptment shed. "Henry Ford had ice skates in nearly every size, so if someone visiting wanted to skate, they could do so," said EIC Program Supervisor and Manager of the Natural Areas Rick Simek. "The skating shed was heated too, so it was a nice warm-up spot."

And where there is currently a bench, the Fords had one there too. "They would use it to lace up their skates before getting on the ice," McLeer said.

Reporter will feature a trail and the insights of UM-Dearborn’s EIC staff each month — on June 4, July 9 and Aug. 6 — during the summer. 

See something on your walk that you're curious about? Snap a photo and send it to EIC's Laura Mallard at [email protected] for answers and to have your finds possibly show up on EIC socials.

Upcoming walks

Bird walks
May 18 and 25, 9 a.m., EIC. Register here.
Join EIC staff member Rick Simek on the trails and see spring migrant birds. Whether just passing through on migration or staying a bit longer, many birds call the land outside of the EIC home.

Mushroom identification 101
May 23, 5 p.m. lecture, 6 p.m. walk, EIC. Learn more.
EIC naturalist and 2023 UM-Dearborn graduate Mike Solomon leads a tour through the grounds pointing out a variety of mushrooms, how to identify them and their uses.

Nature Walks for Mental Health
May 22, June 5 and 19, 1:30 p.m.. EIC. Register for this program.
Relax, unwind and get outside; with brief guided meditations and 45-minute nature walks. 

Crepuscular Caper
May 24, 8 p.m., EIC. Register here.
Join EIC Naturalists for a casual walk in the Natural Area at twilight. Crepuscular is derived from the Latin word Crepusculum, meaning “twilight.” 

Photography Walk
May 30, 2:30 p.m., EIC. Register for this program.
Take a hike with an EIC naturalist and nature photographer. Bring your own cameras and accessories — they supply the scenery. 

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.