A TREE GROWS IN VEGAS
At 2 a.m. Sept. 12, a Sunday morning, the Bellagio ropes off the resort’s immensely popular garden. For the next week, about 115 people work in shifts, 24/7, to transform the 7,300 square feet of planting area from the summer show to the fall display. By Thursday, things are taking shape, with three gigantic fake trees already installed and crates full of flowers and gigantic pumpkins being unpacked and disbursed. Tourists gather behind the velvet rope to photograph the changeover and ogle renderings of the finished design.
In the middle of the room, directing, advising and admiring it all, is Andres Garcia, Bellagio’s director of horticulture.
If slightly less well known than Bellagio’s jetting waters out front, Garcia still equates the garden, located near the elaborate Dale Chihuly in the lobby, to the famed fountains. “The wow factor of the fountains outside has to be matched by something as exciting as the garden inside,” Garcia says.
Five times a year, Garcia overseas the changeover of what is officially if not accurately called Bellagio’s Conservatory & Botanical Garden. The free attraction offers the four seasonal displays, augmented by an elaborate Chinese New Year display in deference to the large number of Chinese high-rollers who pack the Bellagio each year to test their luck. By the Bellagio’s measurement, the garden shows attract about 18,000 tourists every day.
Garcia cheerfully oversees an installation team that includes floral designers, irrigators, engineers, laborers and artists. His is a press release version of the Vegas success story. One of 17 siblings, Garcia emigrated from El Salvador to the United States, originally parking cars in Beverly Hills before moving to Las Vegas in 1986 to take a job as a manual laborer for a landscaping company.
“The first day it felt like 150 degrees, and I was digging and mowing and wanting to quit. But I didn’t,” he says. Now, many years later, Garcia knows as much as anyone about helping plants and flowers survive desert realities.
Of course, despite his experience, things go wrong. The summer show that just wrapped up, for example, had a problem with bromeliads, a flower that had worked well in a previous Chinese New Year show. “The plant was so hardy they lasted the whole holiday show with just a little bit of water,” Garcia recalls. “But in the summer show, the sun was up all day. We lost them.”
This being the Bellagio, it would not do for visitors to see dead flowers. And, indeed, Garcia reports, “our guests never noticed.” The reason: All summer long, Garcia sent a team of 12 employees every day at 4 a.m. to change out all the dying bromeliads with healthy ones. “By breakfast time the garden looks perfect,” Garcia says.
While this was an extreme case, each show stays fresh via a substantial rotation of flowers. The fall show displays about 9,500 flowers at any given time; Garcia expects to go through about 50,000 to keep that fresh blossoming look before the next conversion at the end of November.
Of course, Bellagio’s garden displays offer more than artfully arranged seasonal flowers. Substantial props are created, then stored in a 24,000-square-foot warehouse until reused. Jasmine Amigud, a Seattle artist, has made five trips to Vegas to touch up a papier-mâché vision of a tree Ent that she says she modeled from the “Lord of the Rings” beings. The Ent, she says, was created by volunteers years ago for a parade in Seattle and then, to Amigud’s surprise, was purchased by the Bellagio. Though she has since sold another sculpture to Garcia, she admits to still being amazed to find her whimsical creature part of a casino display.
The eye-catcher of the new show is a set of three gigantic tree sculptures — each about 25 feet tall and weighing roughly 3,300 pounds, made of tightly woven willow stretched over metal — created by English artist Tom Hare.
In the midst of a recession, garden displays with gigantic fake trees and the like would seem to be an obvious place for the Bellagio to make budget cuts. And Garcia admits his team has had to learn to be more efficient. He also notes: “My vendors have adjusted to the times.” Yet the garden essentially continues as overthe-top Vegas opulence. Garcia points out the obvious: “I have to keep the brand. The Bellagio cannot use plastic flowers.”
So he keeps looking for new opportunities. One example in the new show came from a flier Garcia saw by chance for an orchid convention in California. There he discovered Santa Barbara Orchid Estate, whose samples impressed him enough that he went to visit. Alice Gripp, one of the owners, recalls her surprise at getting a call from the Bellagio’s director of horticulture. “We didn’t know they had plants in Las Vegas. But he walked around our nursery and he was really pleased.” Garcia has dedicated a greenhouse to display 100 varieties of their orchids in the show.
By Friday night, everything is ready, a day early, and the ropes are removed. The public is allowed in to admire the “fantasy” trees, gigantic pumpkins, 9,500 flowers and the special collection of orchids.
“Of all the shows, I can honestly say this one is my favorite,” Garcia says.
GIGANTIC:Elaine J. Crossman
One of three tree sculptures created by Tom Hare for the Bellagio’s botanical garden.