Hartley Magazine

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Starry Starry Night

In Phoenix, Arizona, a holiday luminaria display adds sparkle to the Desert Botanical Garden, showing off the local flora as well as the artistic talent.

Time was when the most exhilarating event at a botanic garden was feeding the ducks. No more. This year you could stagger through any conservatory that had an Amorphophallus titanium to get a whiff of what a corpse smells like, since this was a bumper year for their flowering.  Or, quite possibly, you could goggle at the wonders of yet another Chihuly exhibition, since every garden worth its salt has its Chihuly moment. Call me an old bah-humbug, but once you’ve seen one of his glass extravaganzas, you’ve seen ‘em all. And as far as the corpse flowers goes, ditto. Seen it once and that is quite enough, thank you.

The same can’t be said of holiday revels at our nation’s many and varied botanical gardens. From the entire gamut of world wonders reproduced in wooden clothes pegs to miniature railways that would break the heart of Amtrak’s CEO (they always run on time), there is something for everyone of any age. Me, I like luminarias (well, truthfully, anything that sparkles), and at this year’s Las Noches de las Luminarias at the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden, I was agog. As if the cacti and succulents that abound in the garden on the northern reaches of the Sonoran desert weren’t enough, the array of lights wound up palo verde trunks was wow-ful! like stars had dropped from the night sky.

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Twinkle lights and luminarias turn the Desert Botanical Garden into a magic kingdom, beginning on Thanksgiving Day and lasting until New Year.

When I helped out at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center some years ago, I got my first taste of this lovely tradition. We folded over the top edges of hundreds of brown paper sacks, filled them with three inches of sand, and then popped a small candle into the center of each. Of course they had to be lit and tended all evening, so it was labor intensive, but oh-so charming.

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The twinkle lights augment the real attraction of traditional Mexican luminarias — candles in small brown bags — lining the walls and traversing the pathways.

Nowadays, one can purchase strings of luminarias for home-holiday displays…little plastic bags with twinkle lights in each; plug them in and away you go. At the Desert Botanical Garden, the bags are plastic but the candles, nestled in desert grit, are real and sparkle like no bulb ever could. The softly lit paths wound through the garden leading to performance ‘stages’ dotted around the property, each presenting local talent. As dusk fell and the luminarias began to twinkle, the all-female string group, Mariachi Pasión, was playing a rousing welcome in the Otteson Entry Garden.

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In the Steele Herb Garden, Jácome Flamenco, a dance and acoustic duet held us captivated, but on we went.

Botanic gardens are more and more a center of cultural activity, drawing people with all sorts of offerings, to raise money, sure, but also to establish that they are an important and relevant part of the community they serve. Besides the new “garden as art gallery and theater” mandate, they still have a their traditional role to service, teaching an appreciation of horticulture and of plants, local and exotic. Which is what drew me back the next day – in daylight – to marvel at the magic and beauty of all that the desert has to offer.

The Chihuly ‘trees’ at the garden entrance are especially beautiful when lit for events.

The Luminarias celebration continues through December, 9-11, 16-18, 20-23, and 26-31. Visit the garden’s website for more details and go if you can. One last tip, Gertrude’s Restaurant in the garden has some great food on offer. You needn’t go hungry.

© text and photos, Ethne Clarke 2016