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The display was created by garden lighting expert John Garner of Southern Lights in Raleigh. His company donated more than 375 fixtures worth $75,000 as part of the two-night event, which was both fund-raiser for the arboretum and an enlightening opportunity for gardening enthusiasts.
“The main things we’ve tried to do are show how the different plants in the arboretum can be highlighted with light, such as by lighting the bark or the trunk shape,” Garner said. “We wanted to demonstrate the different lighting techniques that people can use in their own gardens.”
Garner pointed out examples of uplighting to delineate the twisting trunks of the Japanese maples and crape myrtles; softwashes on walls, background plants and tall trees (“a kind of backscape to define the outdoor rooms”); and underwater lighting (“the fish love it”), as well as downlighting, pendant lights hung from garden structures.
“We lit the interior of the Japanese maple, because it has a light canopy for a soft fill,” Garner explained.
Other fixtures were placed to call attention not to themselves but to what they did to the landscape.
Illuminated trails took visitors past art deco butterflies and dragonflies, now surreal creatures of the night, to where a bronze grasshopper hovered, his shadow looming large enough to suggest a sci-fi spectre. Among the natural foliage, electric tulips, daffodils and lilies bloomed yellow, red, pink and green. Bronze mushrooms lit from above looked as if they might commence dancing, like something from Disney’s “Fantasia” — or like the nearby white sculpture of Rubenesque sprites, light-captured in mid-pirouette against the dark trees.
Behind the gazebo of the white garden, hydrangeas, well past their peak of sunlit beauty, found new life, color and vibrancy as they became uplit dappled things. Ditto the asters, irises, pine lilies, corn flowers and garden dahlias along the south side of the arboretum.
One of the most striking visual effects was achieved at the porch swing and lily pond arbor. With down lighting, the setting became a Monet painting in 3-D. The greens were a color not of nature but from an impressionist’s palette. Light, shadow and color rendered a painterly quality so still that it was startling when a slight breeze gave movement to the irises, horsetail, arrowhead, lily pads and small clovers floating along the surface of the pond.
The eight-acre JC Raulston Arboretum has one of the most diverse collections of landscape plants in North America. Plant collections include more than 5,000 types of annuals, perennials, bulbs, vines, ground covers, shrubs and trees from 50 different countries.
On this night, that feast for the eyes became a spark for the imagination — giving gardeners a glimmer of what they can do on their own, just with a few lights here and there.