WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
A common misconception exists that one must travel “up north” to enjoy a few hours of nature’s way or just escape life’s daily hustle and bustle. Not so. The splendor of exploring easily accessible nature is never far away; a fact I encounter over and over no matter where I am. Sometimes you just need to know where to go!
In early May, I shared my nature-embracing adventure at the Red Oaks Nature Center in Madison Heights. Today, I’m highlighting my visit from the middle of May to a lesser-known park with a “Living Tree Library” in northernmost Oakland County that’s located just shy of the Genesee County line.
The Brandon Township Community Park encompasses 33 acres and is managed by Brandon Township Parks and Recreation. Just like Red Oaks Nature Center, the park has an easily accessible paved trail. I look at it as the township’s crown jewel, a site hidden away in plain sight that’s open to the public free of charge.
Brandon Township shares the best way to find the park:
“Brandon Township Community Park is located at 1414 North Hadley Road in Ortonville, MI. From M-15 (Ortonville Road): Turn east onto Oakwood Road then turn north onto Hadley Road. The park is the first driveway on the right. The multipurpose/soccer fields and parking areas are to your left as you enter the park. Turn right for the sledding hill, playground, tree library, basketball court, volleyball courts, and baseball fields.”
I made the right hand turn toward the Living Tree Library and Botanical Gardens shortly after the gates opened and parked near the very attractive modern play structure. It’s well designed for children and is surrounded by safety surface in case of a slip and fall. I breathed in the flowery scent of spring air and then walked to the top of the sledding hill, the only hill in the park, to take in my surroundings. My only company on the hilltop that spring day was the music of songbirds and the welcoming presence of a vocal Baltimore Oriole that I briefly sighted.
My previous visit to the park was five years ago on a wintry day. The hilltop was a busy place back then, and I had to wait my turn to reach the top. This video clip from that adventure will show you why it was busy.
A moving conveyor that is only operated in winter takes sledders up, while gravity takes them down. Best yet, it’s free of charge. In past years, the sledding hill’s motorized lift station operated on non-holiday Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. snow and weather conditions permitting. View Brandon Township’s website for information related to the park and upcoming details on the sledding hill.
As I reminisced about the sled hill fun, my thoughts were interrupted by Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes flying overhead. A pair of Sandhills landed in a freshly mowed field near the pavilion and began pecking at seeds, or perhaps it was hunting for insects. The geese flew the other direction and descended near a small wooded wetland near the play area. That waterfowl landing was followed by an explosion of loud honking—and they took off again within seconds. Taking my cue from the descending geese, I climbed back down. A quick off-trail exploration of the wetland revealed sunning turtles, migrating warblers and a goose family paddling about. I suspect the resident geese were not pleased with the newcomers.
With an hour of exploring behind me, it was time to meander through the Living Tree Library. I walked a few hundred feet to the well-marked entrance of the trail, a marvelous way to start a blue sky spring day. It might be a great way to start any day.
The paved trail that loops around the Tree Library is easy to follow and extremely user friendly no matter the level of mobility. Benches are also placed along the trail, some in full sun, and some in the shade. Dogs are permitted but must be leashed at all times. Workout stations ring the perimeter, adding to the multi-use flavor of the park.
The Tree Library section encompasses about nine acres and is a real gem. According to Fred Waybrant, the Brandon Township Park and Recreation director who coordinates the Living Tree Library, there are about 85 different trees, all compatible with Zone 5, and around a couple hundred trees and shrubs. USDA Hardiness Zone 5 has winter temperate that may range between negative 10 and negative 20 degrees. Although many of the planted trees in the Tree Library are not native to Michigan, they will survive here.
It really was an exciting experience to walk the loop around the trees, stopping to sniff some of the most fragrant blooms and reading the information on their species identification plaques. I’ll focus on three trees to perk your interest and leave the other 82 species for you to discover when exploring. This much more detailed plaque was also in place as a memorial salute to someone who obviously had a love for trees.
My favorite tree at the park, is an old friend, the Eastern Redbud. It’s a native understory tree of hardwood forest of the eastern United States with Oakland County being near its northernmost range. It appears in the wild in many of our larger parks and is also planted as a landscape ornamental plant.
Weeping Bald Cypress
A truly unique deciduous conifer tree, the Weeping Bald Cypress has a weeping, waterfall-like appearance and narrow, bright green, lacy needles that turn deep bronze in autumn before shedding them in winter.
Weeping Norway Spruce
The Weeping Norway Spruce, a non-native species, is an excellent “specimen plant” that is often incorporated into Asian gardens or featured in natural water gardens. Its uniquely trained form fits into very difficult spaces and makes an ideal focal point for courtyards and entry gardens with naturalistic landscaping. It is often planted with boulders and other rock accents or pagoda lights.
I wrapped up my visit with a final look at the wetlands and was pleased I did. I encountered a cluster of beautiful Dryad’s Saddle, one of the most eye-catching tree fungi that appear in May. Foragers enjoy this edible springtime fungi for two reasons. One is the obvious—they taste good if properly prepared. But the other reason is the ease of finding them. Dryad’s Saddles do not hide like morels do. They stand out as colorful shelves from the lower portion of dead tree trunks. Pheasant Back is another common name for them because their ‘top sides’ bear a casual resembles to pheasant feathers. I photographed the cluster and left them in place and bid farewell to this crown jewel of Brandon Township until another day.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.