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A TWINKLE IN YOUR EYE

The Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo earns glowing reviews every season.

The towering decorated tree dwarfed Avery Davis-Shaffer as her mother snapped a picture.

With her family by her side, the 4-year-old girl breathlessly surveyed the decorations on the centerpiece tree at the Florida Botanical Gardens.

The tree, adorned with glowing dragonfly and bumblebee ornaments, is a visual treat. But Avery was awestruck by another display.

"Have you seen the alligators with red eyes?" she asked, wide-eyed.

Florida Botanical Gardens, at 12520 Ulmerton Road in Largo, is aglow for the holidays.

Staff members work feverishly for three weeks to create an illuminated garden stroll each season. Every year, the project expands.

This season it features more than 425,000 lights.

"We've had great attendance so far," said Mary Campbell, Pinellas County Extension director. "Last year we had about 40,000 people attend.''

Themed gardens offer an array of attractions. The Wedding Garden glows with a soft, white light as the topiary cupid shoots his arrow toward illuminated hearts. Nearby, giant long- stemmed roses created by lights twinkle next to the real blooms.

Eagles, owls and hawks are made of lights. Walk farther along the path and turn a corner and you see yet another surprise: a hummingbird feeding from a flower, a light display 14 feet tall.

"I like the flowers the best," Avery said, pointing to a giant illumination of potted poinsettias.

Visitor Diana Fellows said the Palm Garden lures her back each year. Palms of different shapes and sizes are decorated with red and green lights.

"When I have company, I always bring them here," Fellows said. "Finding that there are 150 different kinds of palm trees really amazes people."

Campbell, the extension director, said people enjoy the quiet and peacefulness of being in the gardens, especially during the holidays.

"It's a lovely time to experience the gardens at night," she said. "There's a beauty inherent in walking in the evening. It is quiet and restful."

IF YOU GO

Music and a photo

Families can relax from 6-9 tonight at the Florida Botanical Gardens, 12520 Ulmerton Road, with the Lyle Warner Trio. For a suggested $5, children get a photo taken with "Mother Nature." Free admission, refreshments. The gardens are open from 6-10 p.m. through Jan. 3. Call (727) 582-2100.

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