As nightfall darkened Magnolia Plantation and Gardens on Friday, Nov. 15, a series of large Chinese lanterns glowed, illuminating America’s oldest garden for the first time in its 334-year history.
Magnolia opened “Lights of Magnolia: Reflections of a Cultural Exchange” to a steady flow of visitors who moved along graveled pathways to view 23 lantern displays placed within 11 acres.
The lantern festival is the result of a year-long partnership with Magnolia and the Zigong Lantern Group in China. The festival features custom-designed installations of large-scale thematically unified lanterns, a fusion of historic Chinese cultural symbols and images that represent the flora and fauna of Magnolia.
For Zigong, which has erected lantern displays worldwide, “This is the first time the (company) has worked with a U.S. garden with such a long history,” Joy Lin, Zigong’s international project manager, said. “I feel proud that the craftsmanship and artwork has magically transformed the garden at night into a fairy land.”
Lanterns resembling lions, tigers, pandas and zebras clustered under ancient oaks represent Chinese culture. Butterflies, ladybugs, azaleas and alligators depict Magnolia’s semi-tropical environment.
Stretched along Magnolia’s oak-lined entrance is an eye-catching 45-foot high, 200-foot long dragon with scales made with 26,000 gleaming white porcelain dinner plates. The dragon, fins trimmed in changing red, green and blue light, is the longest built by Zigong, based in Zigong, China.
The dragon floats on clouds under a galaxy of bright red lanterns and an animated canopy of white and blue lights, making it appear this mythical Chinese beast has descended through a meteor shower.
As Ravenel resident Paul White approached the dragon on opening night he said, “If you weren’t here you wouldn’t believe it. The depth of the color is just amazing.”
Lights of Magnolia will be on display until March 15, Wednesdays through Sundays. This is the first of a three-year commitment to stage this event in the Lowcountry, Tom Johnson, Magnolia’s executive director, said. “We are excited to bring this cultural experience to our international garden. With it, we want to attract more visitors to Charleston during the winter months when tourism to the city slows down.”
The lantern festival wasn’t the only opening night attraction. Inside the Conservatory, guests were entertained by a Chinese folk dancer and a face-changing artist. Outside in the chilly night air, a stilt walker with lighted butterfly wings strolled alongside the dragon as jugglers tossed pins and hoops. And for the children, a face painter provided an artistic touch to young smiles.
On opening night, WCSC-TV, Charleston’s CBS affiliate, aired two live segments during the evening news that reached thousands of Lowcountry viewers. The television station is a Lights of Magnolia participating sponsor.
The opening night followed a Nov. 12 ribbon cutting attended by five area chambers of commerce. During the event, Lin said. “I hope this lantern festival will be a magical experience for everyone. I hope each of you can adopt a favorite light in your mind and let it inspire and lighten up our minds in the future.”
During the event, Justin Corsa, Zigong’s executive director for North America, said, “The most historic garden in America is right here in Charleston, and I honestly could not imagine partnering with any other garden, except Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Both sides worked extremely hard; a very difficult operation on both sides; a true test of strength. Magnolia succeeded, just as I expected.”
Although Magnolia is America’s oldest garden, its longevity is just a moment in time compared to ancient Chinese culture that dates back thousands of years, Nona Hastie Valiunas, a member of Magnolia’s board of directors, said at the ribbon-cutting.
She marveled at the idea of “America’s oldest garden being lit up by 11 acres of Chinese lanterns, including a two-hundred-foot dragon …. I thought of my father (John Drayton Hastie Sr.), who was responsible for opening the gardens year-round. I thought about how much he would approve of this remarkable partnership, and my brother (John Drayton Hastie Jr.), feels the same way. We are so happy this partnership is here … to have the gardens brought to life in such a unique and breathtaking manner.”
For more information about Lights of Magnolia, go to: www.lightsofmagnolia.com