“I see thirty-one! Thirty-two!” shrieks a young boy as he darts through the greenhouse, peering intently at the foliage in search of Monarch caterpillars. The black and yellow striped larvae cling to leaves, inch along stems and munch the greenery of the low-growing flowering plants, conveniently at kids’ eye level. Little hands give cell phone cameras a workout in the Caterpillar Room of the Butterflies Are Blooming exhibit in the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids.

Throughout March and April of each year, Meijer Gardens receives 1,000 pupae weekly from Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Philippines and Kenya. The 60 species of butterflies and moths that emerge fly freely in the 15,000-square-foot conservatory in an environment similar to their native habitat, with the temperature at 85 degrees and humidity of 70 percent.

The five-story glass conservatory is named for Lena, the wife of Frederik Meijer who, in 1934 at the age of 14, helped his father found the grocery stores that would grow into Meijer supercenters. It was Fred and Lena’s support that allowed the West Michigan Horticultural Society to realize its concept for an art and botanic garden. The Meijers donated land and their sculpture collection to establish the project, which opened in 1995.

Since then it has grown to a 158-acre, internationally-recognized cultural attraction that integrates horticulture, sculpture, nature and the arts indoors and out. Meijer Gardens ranks among the 100 most-visited museums in the world, with more than 700,000 annual visitors. To accommodate its growing attendance numbers, the institution is in the midst of a $115 million project to improve access and services and expand gallery and horticultural exhibition spaces.

Its appeal may be that it offers so many different experiences. The butterfly exhibit is just one of a series of annual events held indoors at the conservatory, and the gardens, planted for four-season interest, are open 362 days a year.


If Meijer Gardens had an address book, it would be sprinkled with the names of classic and contemporary artists Keith Haring, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg, Auguste Rodin and dozens more. Their works, settled in wide meadows, tucked along walkways and perched on gentle rises of the Sculpture Park, are impressive in any season, but especially striking against a snowy landscape are the red “Iron Tree” by Ai Weiwei and Alexander Liberman’s 42foot tall musical tribute “Aria.”


At the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden, the fun begins at the kid-sized gate that leads to hands-on activities like a fossil dig, tree house to climb, log cabin, butterfly maze and garden for the senses. The sculptures here are musical (the mesmerizing, spinning “Wind Gamelans” by Bill and Mary Buchen); joyful (“Children of the World,” a circle of kids at play by Kirk Newman); and comically expressive (“Two Bears” by Marshall Fredericks).

Not to be missed, at the heart of Meijer Gardens, is the wow-worthy “The American Horse.” The 24-foot-tall sculpture is based on a project designed, but never completed, by Leonardo da Vinci more than 500 years ago. Commissioned by Fred Meijer and created by Nina Akamu, “The American Horse” was installed at Meijer Gardens in 1999.


Japanese maples, flowering cherries and bamboo mingle with plants native to Michigan in a peaceful setting that incorporates still and rushing waters, boulders, contemporary art and places for communing with nature. Hoichi Kurisu designed the Japanese Garden with accessible paths that wind past ponds, waterfalls and sculptures such as “Long Island Buddha,” a massive head made of steel and copper by Shanghai artist Zhang Huan.

Kurisu incorporated a zig-zag bridge, gazebo and platform with an elevated view of the eight-acre landscape. At the authentic Japanese tea house, guests remove their shoes before entering to experience a traditional tea ceremony, held the third Sunday of each month from May through October. The Meijer bonsai collection is displayed at the Zen-style Garden, a courtyard with carefully positioned rocks and gravel raked in a precise pattern, just as Buddhist monks did centuries ago to inspire meditation.


Meijer Gardens hosts events year-round.

  • Sept. 21-Oct. 28 Chrysanthemums and More!
  • Nov. 20-Jan. 6, 2019 Christmas & Holiday Traditions
  • Jan. 26-27, 2019 Orchid Show
  • Mar. 1-Apr. 30, 2019 Butterflies Are Blooming


This article originally appeared in the 2018 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.


Kath Usitalo is the author of three books, “Secret Upper Peninsula: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure,” “100 Things to Do in the Upper Peninsula Before You Die” and “100 Things to Do on Mackinac Island Before You Die.”

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