Subtle hints that winter is on its way to the Sunshine State can be found at the Florida Botanical Gardens.
There's the cool breeze ruffling the feathers of the herons wading in McKay Creek. There are the buds on the Christmas ornament tree that will bloom into countless tiny pink flowers by Christmas morning. And there are the yaupon holly plants, dotted with tiny red berries.
If these hints are not enough to get you started on your letter to Santa, here's one more: On Friday, the annual Holiday Lights in the Gardens opens to the public.
This year, the much-loved Pinellas County tradition is bigger than ever with 750,000 lights sparkling throughout the 30-acre Florida Botanical Gardens. Treetops are adorned in red, green and gold. Countless plants twinkle, like the frangipani lit up in aquamarine and bromeliads shimmering in fuscia. And all around the park, dozens of artistic displays twinkle, including a flock of flamingos dipping their beaks into a fountain, a family of butterflies fluttering their blue and green wings, and an alligator with glowing red eyes.
"Yes, we are bigger. We always like to do more every year,'' said Terry Berube, president of the Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation.
Although the event began as a Pinellas County government project in 2002, six years ago the foundation took it over.
"At the time, the county couldn't (budget) the money for it. We've come a long way since we took it over,'' Berube said. "The first year was difficult financially, but the next year we began collecting $2 (at the gate), and that's when it began to be successful.''
Last year, the foundation netted $40,000 though donations. "There was an extra week in December last year, and we can't expect to do as well this time, but whatever we make, we will put back in the gardens,'' she said.
This time, once January rolls around and all the decorations are put away and the bills are paid, Berube and the other members of the all-volunteer board plan on starting a new project: a renovation of the western portion of the gardens.
"It's a joint project with the county and we're still planning it, but we will use some of the money from the lights,'' she said. "The west side of the gardens has been a struggle to maintain properly. We decided together to make the area better. The garden that will change the most is the butterfly garden (in the children's area). We'll increase the size exponentially.''
Along with the lights, there are two special events planned during the month of December.
On Dec. 8, the foundation will hold its annual plant and gift sale, which will include 45 vendors with offerings like tropical plants, orchids, herbs, citrus, bamboo, bromeliads, begonias and fruit trees as well garden art, jewelry and handmade crafts.
And on Dec. 29, the gardens will be taken over by canines for the foundation's annual Holiday Dog Parade.
"The volunteers throughout the Holiday Lights make this all happen,'' Berube said. "First, there's the 150 volunteers that come in throughout the event, and that's the number just for those who welcome the people and work throughout the grounds. We also have another 50 or 60 entertainers who come in for free . . . Without them, it wouldn't be a success.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163.