In 1899 Professors Julius Schlotterbeck and Frederick Newcombe hired landscape architect O.C. Simonds to evaluate possible sites for an arboretum. Over the next several years a collaboration emerged between the University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor that combined a gift of land from the Nichols family with additional tracts, collectively totaling 80 acres. In 1906 Simonds prepared the first plan for the arboretum.
Simonds believed that arboreta were valuable places to study both individual plants and plant communities as found in nature, and that nature was often the best teacher. At the Nichols he contrasted native forests with plant collections. His design served both as a public park and a site for botanical research. In addition, Simond’s approach emphasized naturalistic scenery, taking full advantage of the site’s unique geography, including dramatic glaciated topographic features and wooded ridges. Open meadow valleys, once used for farming, were designed to remain open and were populated with plant collections.
In addition to the Nichols, Simonds designed the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, and his own experimental arboretum at Pier Cove, Michigan. Today, the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum manages over 700 acres of gardens, research areas, and natural preserves around Ann Arbor.