Book documents conifer collection at HLG

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Justin “Chub” Harper at Hidden Lake Gardens. Photo by Dennis Groh/Courtesy of Hidden Lake Gardens.

What trees are the most used for construction? The three to one choice is conifers. What trees have been documented to live for 4,000-5,000 years? This feat belongs to bristlecone pines, which are conifers. What is the world’s largest tree? The giant sequoia or giant redwood, by either name, is also a conifer. There is more to conifers than just the triangle-shaped pine trees most familiar to the untrained eye. Cypress, rhododendron, larch and redwood are members of this diverse family, with foliage that changes color and drops in the fall.

These facts are just a part of the new book People & Plants: The Harper Collection of Dwarf and Rare Conifers by Dr. Ronald J. Elardo, Ph.D. and Steven W. Courtney, N.P.D. for Hidden Lake Gardens.

The diversity of the conifer world first intrigued Justin “Chub” Harper in 1954 when he purchased a dwarf Alberta spruce and started his collection in the yard of his Moline, Illinois home. Beginning in 1981, visitors to Hidden Lake Gardens in Tipton were able to catch Harper’s passion when his collection of 342 dwarf and rare conifers was donated to the facility.

To commemorate the history of the collection donated by Harper in 1981 as well as document the specimens on this picturesque hillside, it was decided there should be a book to honor the collection and Harper’s contribution to Hidden Lake Gardens. Elardo and Courtney brought their skills of writing and horticulture, respectively, to the book as they worked with a number of people to edit People & Plants. As diverse an offering as the conifer collection it explores, the book mixes history, anecdotes, photography, and research regarding the collection as well as the Harper’s vision and philosophy.

“We took it and went with the philosophy this was an educational tool,” said Elardo.

Although an invaluable source of information for those passionate about conifers, the book is written to make the world of conifers understandable to those with little or no knowledge about these trees. In fact, admirers of the collection’s transformation located on the hillside near the conservatory will be pleasantly surprised at how easy these trees are to acquire and grow in a home environment. People and Plants is an excellent guide for anyone interested in adding specialty conifers to a home landscape.

Jack Wikle, naturalist-educator for Hidden Lake Gardens from 1968 to 1988, provided much of the background information on the collection, which happened as a result of his interaction with Harper. After their first chance meeting at the International Shade Tree Conference in 1963, the friendship grew and inspired Harper to donate his conifer collection to Hidden Lake Gardens in 1981. The trees traveled from Harper’s backyard in Moline, Illinois all the way to Tipton.

“Jack basically pulled everything together,” said Hidden Lake Gardens Manager Courtney.

Part of the book includes the detailed assessment made by educators and students from Michigan State University in the spring of 2011. Total height and crown spread measurements were taken for each conifer in the collection and the documentation is included in the book.

“It has research that has never been done before,” Elardo said. “This is an important baseline.”

Not every conifer that traveled to Tipton in 1981 is still on the grounds, and there have been many additions by Harper and others, increasing the collection to 500 conifers. Harper was very active with involvement of the collection up until his death in 2009.

“If the tree isn’t performing, it’s gone,” Courtney said of Harper’s belief conifers should be a low maintenance delight.

Since 1981, the collection has evolved and matured into a highly respected and internationally known location for specimens of dwarf and rare conifers. The American Conifer Society held part of its 30th anniversary national meeting and Conifer College at Hidden Lake Gardens in July.

Considered by horticulturalists as an important destination, Elardo, editor of Conifer Quarterly for the American Conifer Society, hopes local residents realize what gifts The Harper Collection of Dwarf and Rare Conifers and Hidden Lake Gardens are for neighboring communities.

“They’re really getting something priceless,” he said. “It’s here and it’s not going anywhere.”

The $53.00 book was fully funded through donations, according to Courtney. Proceeds from book sales go into the endowment at Michigan State University, which supports the care and maintenance of The Harper Collection of Dwarf and Rare Conifers. People & Plants: The Harper Collection of Dwarf and Rare Conifers is for sale exclusively in the Hidden Lake Gardens gift shop.

Hidden Lake Gardens is located 8.5 miles west of Tecumseh on M-50, and is open 362 days a year. For hours and information visit hiddenlakegardens.msu.edu or call 517.431.2060.




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