A Las Vegas Wonderland for Nature Lovers

This conservatory is the Bellagio's gift to the world and is open to everyone who visits Las Vegas.

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Cornstalks and a riot of chrysanthemums in autumn leaf colors blend with squash and gourds in this harvest-inspired theme. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)

Las Vegas has little to offer we children of nature, but when I was in Sin City for a convention I ventured down to the Bellagio on rumors it was worth a visit.

While the rest of the world is still in the depths of winter, spring blooms at the Bellagio. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)
The soaring 50-foot ceiling at the Bellagio provides ideal conditions for an incredible conservatory garden in the Nevada desert. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)
Giant topiary swans sit in a black reflecting pool surrounded by hydrangeas and azaleas. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)
The Romanesque butterfly habitat is the centerpiece of the garden. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)
The summer garden featured symbols of American patriotism with red, white and blue flowers timed for Independence Day. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself - DIY)

My first shock was entering a hotel and not being assaulted by slot machines and giant sized TV screens. Instead, a fabulous blown glass sculpture cloaks the ceiling in colored light.

But it was what is beyond the glass sculpture that lured me in like a moth to a flame. It is an enormous conservatory, just as you'd expect to find in the great palm house of Victorian England -- fifty foot ceilings of glass bathed an enormous 13,000 square foot room in glorious natural light. At the center stands an aged Roman temple with Corinthian columns. It serves as an open air environment filled with huge butterflies and moths of every color.

Turn in any direction from this center point and you'll find a bridge that seems to be right out of many of Monet's water lily paintings of Giverny. Down the center of it all is a black reflecting pool filled with giant swans planted as colorful topiary. Along the arched doorways around the edges of the garden are enormous urns planted with the most incredible arrangements of plants, twigs and flowers.

I stood on marble floors inlaid with colorful patterns of vines and flowers right out of Villa d'Este. I marveled at weeping willows, seas of hydrangeas and great rivers of canary yellow tulips that drifted through the beds. Nowhere was a plant out of place, from the water lilies to the mossed banks of the pond. This conservatory is horticultural perfection.

The incredible part is knowing this entire landscape will be totally transformed in a couple of weeks. It will take on the summer scheme and then switch to fall just three months afterward. Just what does it take to create such beauty from scratch with each new season, and a fifth time for Chinese New Year?

For starters, it takes a force of 120 people working 24 hours a day for a week to make the transition. A staff of 130 skilled people maintain the climate controlled garden and 90,000 square feet of greenhouses behind the hotel where plants are housed until ready. Each plant must not only survive, but thrive and look absolutely flawless.

The garden requires about 31 trees, 500 shrubs and 6,000 flowers. Five cranes are hidden inside the infrastructure of the garden and the floor is honeycombed with tunnels just like Rome's coliseum. Cranes move trees that can weigh up to six tons apiece. They are also essential to constructing the garden which is created in a platform system, then assembled like a giant puzzle. The mass and weight of it alone is staggering.

Renowned lighting designer Daivd Hersey ensures the conservatory is just as incredible after dark. It's important in a city that plays hard all night long. The ceiling is studded with theatrical lighting to illuminate every flower with surgical precision. Each time the garden changes, all the lighting must be redesigned too.

Behind the scenes the conservatory space is always in the planning process with gardens designed a full year in advance. Conceptual ideas, approvals, renderings and drawings are required to plan and engineer each new garden.

Every time you visit, the garden will be entirely fresh experience. Take a pilgrimage. Amble down the strip. Turn into the Bellagio. You're guaranteed to discover a new kind of natural magic not playing on any other stage in Vegas.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at mo@moplants.com. For more information, visit : www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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