Exploring the Eastside is an occasional series spotlighting the Eastside's special places. If you've got a suggestion, send it to east@seattletimes.com or call us at 425-453-2130...

Share story

Exploring the Eastside is an occasional series spotlighting the Eastside’s special places. If you’ve got a suggestion, send it to east@seattletimes.com or call us at 425-453-2130.

Martha Sampson, 64, of Seattle has spent many spring and summer hours walking through the Bellevue Botanical Garden.

But a recent evening stroll revealed a side of the garden Sampson had yet to see.

“It’s like a magic fairyland,” she said.

Each holiday season, thousands of tiny lights transform the botanical gardens into a place of wonder. Called Garden d’Lights, it’s filled with vibrantly colored flowers and whimsical creatures.

The blooms and bugs are created by volunteers who spend countless hours over several months twisting and tying strands of lights into plant and animal shapes.

It’s no small feat.

Udell Fresk, who coordinates the annual event, worked on a teal turtle for two years. One hanging fuchsia basket contains 2,200 twinkle lights. And the grand total for the whole display is about 300,000 tiny bulbs.

Fresk begins a tour of the festive foliage under an arbor adorned with glowing wisteria vines. Hanging in bunched blossoms of purple lights, the flowers were the first ones made for the garden when the project began more than 11 years ago.

The original intent of Garden d’Lights was to attract visitors to the botanical gardens during dreary winter months. The crowds have grown every year. Fresk estimated the display drew 60,000 people last year.

The garden’s real plants draw a crowd as well.

Bellevue Botanical Garden

Where: 12001 Main St.

When: The garden is open daily from dawn to dusk, with the Visitor Center open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Garden d’Lights is open from 5 to 9:30 p.m. daily through Dec. 31.

Cost: Admission is free for the garden and Garden d’Lights. Donations are accepted.

More information: Call the Bellevue Botanical Garden at 425-452-2750 or go to www.bellevuebotanical.org

With its extensive walking trails, blooming perennial border and various specialty gardens, the 36-acre park is a year-round attraction. The spring brings hundreds of daffodils, tulips and lilies and is the best time to glimpse the rock garden, said Denise Lane, co-president of the Bellevue Botanical Garden Society, which supports the garden. In summer, outdoor concerts attract music lovers and garden lovers alike. In autumn, walkers enjoy the changing leaves along the garden paths.

The botanical garden started as a gift.

Bellevue residents Calhoun and Harriet Shorts donated the home they lived in for three decades and the surrounding 7.5 acres on Wilburton Hill to the city of Bellevue in 1980, with the idea that it would be a park. The city added several more acres to the Shortses’ donation, and the botanical garden officially opened in 1992.

Eight acres are developed so far, and plans include a hanging garden, complete with a suspension bridge, new water features and more specialty gardens.

Even with aspirations to be recognized worldwide, the botanical garden is meant to inspire, not intimidate. “The whole idea is to have it at residential scale, so people can look around it to get ideas,” Lane said.

A new visitors center is in the works. For now, the former Shorts home serves that function, housing a gift shop and providing visitors to Garden d’Lights with a warm, dry place to rest.

Braving a December downpour, Bellevue resident Lois Wade admired a poinsettia tree made from 15,450 lights.

“There’s so many things to see,” she said. “It keeps getting better every year.”

Included in the garden’s attractions are electric pink and blue lilies blooming near a fountain. Primroses twinkle from patches of dirt, and fluffy pampas grass glows from afar.

In one corner, a gigantic spider, named Charlotte, is poised to capture a fly. A Canada goose flies just above the lawn. And Willy, the garden’s elusive slug, is hidden in a different spot each year.

Avid gardeners will likely appreciate the botanical accuracy of many of the blooms. Reaching for a bright pink flower, one visitor noted, “So these are the rhodies.”

Donna Pratt, a longtime Garden d’Lights volunteer, said people’s reaction to her flowers are reward enough for the hundreds of hours she’s spent on the project: “Once in a while I’ll just come to listen to everyone’s ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs.’ “

Kelly Kearsley: 206:464-2112 or kkearsley@seattletimes.com