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Brookgreen Gardens: The season of light arrives

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

For Jon McGann, exhibits supervisor for Brookgreen Gardens’ “Nights of a Thousand Candles,” Christmas is here.

McGann and members of Brookgreen’s horticulture staff started work on the gardens’ seasonal light show Sept. 15, and after testing and tweaking they are ready to begin a three-weekend run tonight that concludes Dec. 18. McGann said he’s gotten help from employees from all departments at Brookgreen and dozens of volunteers as lights were strung garden by garden.

Hurricane Matthew came at an inopportune time, but damage to the lights was minor compared to the rest of the gardens. McGann and his staff stopped work on their project to help clean up broken limbs and downed trees. Brookgreen CEO Bob Jewell said the hurricane was a setback, but no significant trees or statuary were damaged. “We improvised and overcame the obstacles that Mother Nature threw at us,” he said. “When people come, they will be very pleased.” Weeks of mild, dry weather have provided ample opportunity for the light crews to catch up, McGann said.

Nightly shows begin at 3 p.m. for people wanting to beat the crowds and watch staff members and volunteers light 5,500 candles. Entertainment begins at 4 p.m. The illumination of 70,000 lights on an 80-foot fir tree at 5:45 p.m. signals the start of the light show. Colored strands of lights have been added to the big tree this year, Jewell said. “When I saw it on a walkthrough it gave me goosebumps,” he said.

Kelley Nash, a member of the horticulture staff, said there are a million individual lights illuminating the gardens, including nearly 5,000 candles. It takes a team of about 50 more than an hour to light the candles on 1,500 pedestals, 500 floating bowls and 2,400 tea candle luminaries each night. The first lights to greet visitors will be at Anne’s Garden, between the gift shop and the Rainey Sculpture Pavilion. It is a lighted display of hand-blown glass by Ed and Barbara Streeter, owners of Conway Glass. Fiber optic cable was run to Anne’s Garden to illuminate the blue and green orbs and reeds around the Tortoise Fountain. New this year is a series of plates representing the flowers of the glowing reeds. “The exhibit was a big hit last year,” McGann said. An illuminated bottle tree at the garden entrance will help steer more people inside the garden, he said. The tree—the Streeters call it a “Polar Cypress”—will hold 65 cobalt blue bottles with white tips. The Streeters gave the glass to Brookgreen for display in the future.

In addition to the light show in Anne’s Garden, there will be two exhibits in the sculpture pavilion continuing through Jan. 3: “Holiday Memories of Yesteryear: Nostalgia, Beauty, and Fun,” model trains, and “A Forest Sanctuary,” with a horticultural theme. The train exhibit in the Jennewein Gallery will feature Thomas the Train, something to entice children, according to Jeff Hall of the garden exhibit department. Along with the usual Lionel train layout, there is a full amusement park in miniature including The Big Dipper, an above-the-track-style wooden roller coaster, and “The Scorpion”, an inverted roller coaster patterned after “Montu” at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla. Preparator Preston Moorhead said the train display outside the Rainey Galley will feature a replica of Georgetown’s Front Street. “We try to top ourselves every year,” Moorhead said. Greenhouse supervisor Vickie Richardson said the horticulture display in the Noble Galley features two big “Forest Guardians” among the Christmas trees and reindeer.

Brookgreen has made minor improvements to the light show that may go unnoticed by visitors. New lighting at Fountain of the Muses will produce a better experience, McGann said. “Years before we couldn’t quite get it the way we wanted,” he said. “This is better. The lights are safer, easier to install and in my opinion done to a more professional standard.” Efficient LED lighting was installed last year, providing an even amount of light along each strand, McGann said. “If we’re not using LED lights,” he said, “it’s for design emphasis because we don’t like the look of the bulb.”

Workers are tending to dozens of last-minute details. Chinese lanterns were going up in the Palmetto Garden Monday. They are made of nylon now rather than paper but remain fragile. “A big storm beats them up,” McGann said. Glass hurricane candles will be another project delayed until the last minute for the same reason. There’s a chance of rain today, but the remainder of opening weekend looks ideal for outdoor activities.

The biggest change visitors will be asked to make is buying tickets in advance. “We are hoping to even the flow of the crowd by capping the number of people that come,” Jewell said. “It was a move we absolutely had to make to maintain the quality of the event. There’s a good likelihood that certain nights will be sold out.”

If visitors are in line waiting to enter the gardens, Jewell said they can still buy tickets on their mobile devices by going to brookgreen.org. “It’s very user friendly,” he said. “All in all, I thought we had hit our absolute peak last year; we couldn’t make it any better. But we have. And that’s thanks to our staff and wonderful volunteers.”

How to buy tickets: Adult tickets for the general public are $18, children’s tickets are $10. Members get a $4 discount on adult tickets and a $2 discount for children. Those age 3 and under are free. Advance purchase is required. Call 1-888-718-4253 or go to brookgreen.org.

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