The May weather may be ping-ponging between glorious sunshine and dreary rain, but spring is in full bloom at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. We’re talking pretty-in-pink crabapple trees, giant allium, perfumed lilacs, redbud trees, wild phlox, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Lenten roses, azaleas, and 38,000 peaking tulips.
Part of the University of Minnesota, the 1,137-acre horticultural garden in Chaska, four miles west of Chanhassen, a.k.a. the Kingdom O’ Prince, is home to 48 specialty gardens, bountiful trails (including 12 miles for hiking, 11 miles for snowshoeing, and 8 miles for cross-country skiing), and the three-year-old Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center, a family-friendly educational center and research hub of renowned entomologist Dr. Marla Spivak.
Beyond the floral displays, the Arboretum is a paradise for birders: More than 200 species have been identified here, including 82 nesting types. Stop by the info desk in the Oswald Visitor Center to request a Bird Checklist pamphlet, then have your binoculars ready for sightings of Indigo Buntings, Golden-winged Warblers, and Cedar Waxwings.
The Arb is also home to the Andersen Horticultural Library, the largest horticultural research library in the Upper Midwest. The collection boasts nearly 20,000 books, including rarities from the early 1500s, and one of North America’s largest collections of seed and nursery catalogs. The library is open to the public and filled with furniture designed by master woodworker George Nakashima.
On a beautiful sunny weekend, the Three-Mile Drive can be choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic. The complimentary Bee-Line Shuttle, which runs from April 19 through October 31 and stops at five locations, may be too crowded to board. At least that was our experience when visiting during the crush of Memorial Day Weekend.
Fortunately, the Arboretum has another way to take in its best sights: a new Three-Mile Walk. The paved path traverses woods, wetlands, and prairie and cuts through some of its most popular gardens, including the Dayton Wildflower Garden, Lady Slipper Garden (loaded with MN-native orchids), and Shrub Rose Garden. The walk wends past Crabapple trees, which typically bloom in late May, and connects to the Wuertele Bog Walk on Green Heron Trail, a .6-mile stretch flanked by swaying cattails, floating duckweed, and yellow marsh marigolds.
The Arboretum’s serene Japanese Garden, designed by landscape architect Koichi Kawana in 1985, is not to be missed. Its calming layout is inspired by Japan’s Edo Period and incorporates 20 varieties of trees, 24 types of shrubs, granite snow lanterns, a garden house, and a nine-foot waterfall. The Chinese Garden is another fine place for meditation and reflection. Passing through the eight-foot Moon Gate is a symbolic reminder to cast off the stressors of the day and be at one with nature. On the other side, a peony garden and jagged Qinling mountain rocks — a gift from the Shaanxi Provincial People’s Government in central China — await.
For us, another high point of the Arboretum was the Harrison Sculpture Garden: 26 contemporary sculptures dotting a grassy three-acre parcel planted with Kentucky coffee trees. Notable works include Swiss artist René Küng’s graceful Stone Arch, under which we spotted ballerinas in arabesque; American artist Jesus Bautista Moroles’ Disc Spiral, a carved granite wheel with a square cut-out, ideal for framing photos of the greenery just beyond; and two macabre bronze sculptures (Canto Notturno and Sud II) by Italian Neo-Expressionist Mimmo Paladino.
On May 25, 2019, the Arboretum unveiled its latest attraction: “YouBetcha,” a monumental stick-build sculpture by artist-in-residence Patrick Dougherty. The whimsical installation took three weeks to build and was constructed using sustainably harvested willow branches from a windbreak study in Waseca. “YouBetcha” is expected to stay in its current location for a couple of years and can booked for special events like weddings or proposals.
Check the calendar before setting out; the Arboretum hosts a variety of classes and workshops on edible gardening, shinrin-yoku (Japanese forest bathing), raptor photography, and more. And if you think you’ll be going more than once a year, consider buying an annual membership. One-time adult admission costs $15 a pop, but a solo membership is $60. A dual membership is $100 and a family membership, which covers up to four adults per visit, is just $125. (Note: Kids 15 and under are always free when accompanied by an adult.)
Members get retail discounts in the Gift & Garden Store (which has one of the largest selections of gardening books in the Upper Midwest), reduced rates for classes, and gratis gardening advice from the master green thumbs who staff the Yard & Garden Desk in the Oswald Visitor Center from noon to 4 p.m. on weekends. To top it all off, your membership is reciprocal, gaining you free entry to more than 300 gardens across North America. Click here to see a list of participating gardens.
Note: To find out exactly what’s in bloom on the day you’re headed over, call the Arboretum’s pre-recorded Bloom Line at 612-625-9791. Save for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the grounds are open 363 days a year. Hours vary by the season, as do the attractions. (The Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center, for example, always closes by 4 p.m., even when the Three-Mile Drive stays open till 8.) Admission is free on the third Monday of every month; expect swells of visitors from April through October.
Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
3675 Arboretum Dr., Chaska, MN; 952-443-1400.