A Flowery Holiday Season

By Trevor Born

Commissioned by MerryStockings
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The common image of a botanic garden may be a lush spread of flowers and grasses on a sunny day; an urban sanctuary for thinking and nature walking in the fragrant mugginess of dense plant life. But for many of the continent’s hundreds of botanical gardens, one of the year’s highlights comes in the middle of the winter.


Around the holidays, gardens transform into busy spectacles that combine lights, flowers, trains and family activities that merge plant life with cultural traditions. From Vancouver to New York, these botanical gardens attract hundreds of thousands of people with their annual displays.


The gardens are a yearly tradition for many families and long-time residents, who also help set up the events that demand hundreds of volunteers and thousands of work hours.




“We have people who drive two hours to get here every year, ” said Holly Shimizu, the executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden. “Families like traditions at the holidays. They have out of town guests and want to get out of the house, but they don’t want to go to the mall again. They want to get in the holiday spirit, so they come here.”


There are more than 350 botanic gardens in North America, maintaining and labeling a variety of exotic plants. Most are publicly owned or run as nonprofits, established to serve their (usually urban) communities from the dog days of summer to the doldrums of winter. Holiday exhibits usually run for most of December and part of January. Many are free and most are less than $15 for adults, with special discounts for seniors, children and students.



350 Gardens in the U.S.














“People can count on a joyful experience when they come here,” Shimizu said. “Our aim is to make people happy, which is what people want around that time of year. It’s a place where we’re not selling anything or advertising anything. Just people, old and young, coming together in the spirit of the holiday.”






A holiday guest at the Denver Botanic Garden can roam a trail overlooking the Colorado foothills (see photo above), passing by more than a million lights illuminating the garden’s trees and plants. When you’ve taken in the scenery, you can up the ante and slip on a pair of special glasses that turn the lit plants into 3-D shapes. It is one of the many holiday exhibits where the light displays are the cornerstone of the show. At gardens around the country, volunteers craft the lights into unique designs and string them among the plants, creating an electrically colorful holiday spectacle.


At the Bellevue Botanical Garden in Washington, a half million lights are formed into the shapes of more than 100 types of flowers, trees, and bugs. There’s a poinsettia tree made of 12,800 lights and a 46-foot-long river of light that includes a pair of 19 foot waterfalls. It takes volunteers as long as two hours to make each flower from a string of lights, and more than 8,600 volunteer hours to set up the full display. Like all botanic garden holiday exhibits, it aims to create a botanic feel during a time of year that lacks plant life.


“We basically turn a good portion of our garden into a flowering light show, when there are no flowers in the winter time,” said Sharon Graham, a volunteer who, along with her husband, is in charge of the light display at Bellevue. “We have people that come from all over the place to take classes and learn how to go back and do this stuff in their garden back home.” The Bellevue exhibit will have a 40-inch tall frog and a dragon that’s spread out over 12 square feet. Like most botanical light shows, the lights are mostly energysaving LED bulbs.











VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver puts on its own light show each night, projecting lights on to a nearby lake that dance to holiday music.


In Richmond, VA., The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden features 600,000 lights in the GardenFest of Lights show. Guests walking through the show can also visit the “Wall of Memories”, where each year a prompt is given and people stick a Post-It note with their answer to the wall. Last year, guests posted more than 17,000 notes answering, “What is your wish for the world?”


Other lights shows include the Brookside Gardens in Montgomery, MD., which features millions of lights sculpted into things like dragons, giant sunflowers, snowflakes, and autumn leaves. Other significant shows are held at the Frederick Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, MI., and at the Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise.






It’s easy to spot a Paul Busse train layout, but you will never see two of the same.


Busse’s company, Applied Imagination, makes holiday model train displays for botanical gardens across the U.S. The trains, each the size of a loaf of bread, usually run through a terrain of area landmarks and notable buildings.


The materials are all natural products, like leaves, pine cones, acorns or bark. Applied Imagination uses the materials to make snow, snowflakes, waterfalls, bridges, tunnels, mountains and buildings.


“We like to immerse the observer into the display, with trains chugging along over a bent willow bridge over their head, or surprising them by popping out of a tunnel made of hollow logs, or going around a pond at their feet”, said Cindy Johnson, a botanical architect at Applied Imagination.


At the New York Botanical Garden, the trains circle a halfmile track with replicas of 140 notable New York Buildings like St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the old Yankee Stadium.





The Chicago Botanic Garden’s wonderland express navigates a 10,000 square foot area, winding through bridges, under waterfalls, and mast replicas of more than 80 Chicago landmarks, including Soldier Field, Millenium Park, and the Navy Pier. A popular model of President Barack Obama’s Chicago home is made of catalpa beans and pine bark.


Busse’s most iconic building may be an 8-foot-tall dark gold replica of the U.S. Capitol Building at the U.S. Botanic Garden. The building, which appears from a distance to be bronze, is actually a combination of leaves, acorns, grapevines, and other materials.


Busse also does holiday train displays for the Krohn Conservatory in Cincinatti; the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio; the Fernwood Botanical Garden in Niles, MI; Frederick Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, MI; and the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington D.C.


“Paul is in the business of making people happy, and that’s exactly what he does,” Shimizu said. “You’re never sure where it’s going or what it’s tied to. It’s the kind of thing that the more you look at it, the more you see. There’s a magical quality to it.”






Whether the main attraction is a train display or a light show or something else, each botanic garden holiday show is flanked with more traditional holiday activities. Many shows, like Van Dusen Botanical Gardens and the Denver Botanic Gardens, feature choirs and carolers that sing to guests as they stroll the gardens.


VanDusen features a live Santa, a Gingerbread walk and a Candy Cane Lane. Denver’s presentation includes mistletoe kissing spots, a bell choir, ice sculptures and dancers.


The Chicago Botanic Garden lets visitors roam the garden with snowshoes if they wish, and also features breakfast and dinner events with Santa, hot chocolate with Mrs. Clause and a Hanukkah dinner. The Atlanta Botanical Garden hosts a holiday market, puppet shows, and a bring-your-dog day.


Most holiday events serve hot food and drinks such as cookies, s’mores, waffles, kettle corn, mini doughnuts, hot chocolate, cider and coffee. With exotic lights and decorations, the gardens are a popular place for taking family holiday photos. Guests at the U.S. Botanic Garden often snap photos under the Holiday tree, which is decorated with ornaments and lights and circled by a Paul Busse model train.


“The holiday show is our gift to the public, because people love it,” Shimizu said. “That’s really our business, to get people to love plants and provide a magical atmosphere to enjoy the holidays”.