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COLD SPRING, Minn. — Thin branches — bowing at the weight of lush purple flowers — stretch over 12 feet high in Mike Nistler's "lilac labyrinth."

Stepping onto the path between bushes, the delicate sweet scent surrounds visitors as they walk through arches of this quintessential spring bloom.

And for a few minutes, they're transported to a secret garden oasis — all without leaving the central Minnesota hobby farm where the path is planted.

"I had visions that this was going to be my Garden of Eden," said Nistler, 71, who planted the path of lilacs two decades ago and opened it to the public in 2022.

The maze of lilac plants — about 1,000 feet long with a winding pathway and several benches — is at Nistler's Boomerville Lodge in central Stearns County, about 15 miles southwest of St. Cloud.

Nistler moved to the property with his wife, Sue, three decades ago. The couple opened a day care and short-lived antique store and, a few years later, Nistler renovated the farm's pig barn into a venue to host parties, weddings, reunions and corporate events.

He named the venue a few years before the phrase "OK, Boomer" became popular as a retort to older folks out of touch with younger generations. That doesn't bother Nistler.

"Every generation has their quirks," he said. "The main people we're after is the Baby Boomer generation. But we can have Boomer wannabes, as well. The music was so much better."

Nistler said his childhood home in Eden Valley had lilacs and that he's always liked the blooms, which are one of the first signs spring has actually arrived in Minnesota.

The couple's 6.5-acre property, which is surrounded by sprawling farm fields, included scrubby trees when they moved there. But Mike had a vision for something more. So he planted hundreds of lilac bushes and spent a month laying down mulch — just to learn it wasn't very effective against weeds. So he then spent a month removing the mulch and adding sand to the path. He now spends about 100 hours each year tending to the lilacs.

"I just thought, 'I'm working so hard on this thing. I might as well let people enjoy it,'" he said.

While the "lilac labyrinth" blossomed earlier than usual this year, it's one of the better years for flowers, Nistler said. But after a few chilly nights in April he worried the plants wouldn't bloom at all and googled it.

"I didn't sleep that first night when I read they could all die."

Since opening to the public, Nistler has seen guests from Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin, as well as across the state.

It's free, but Nistler collects donations for someone needing help. The first year it was a neighbor whose baby died shortly after birth; last year it was his cousin, Ron Nistler, who was a medic in Vietnam and has several medical issues from being exposed to Agent Orange. This year, all donated funds will go to Mary Kay Donabauer, a neighbor who is dealing with complications from colorectal and lung cancer.

The path is open from noon-8:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday. Nistler said the best time to come is the evening as dusk casts a soft glow overhead.

"If you take pictures, you want that golden hour," he said.

The blooms are short-lived but Nistler said the path should be open through Memorial Day, and maybe a few days after, depending on the flower condition. Call Nistler at 320-293-4058 for availability.

Blooming flowers form the Lilac Labyrinth Thursday at Boomerville Lodge in Cold Spring.
Blooming flowers form the Lilac Labyrinth Thursday at Boomerville Lodge in Cold Spring.

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune