How the Bellagio makes its beautiful gardens so magical

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The spring display at the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical GardensThe spring display at the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens — Photo courtesy of MGM Resorts International

If you think it’s hard to stay on top of your own little backyard garden, imagine how Jerry Bowlen, Executive Director of Horticulture, and his team at Bellagio Las Vegas feel.

Every day, they have to water, trim and tend to the tens of thousands of plants that make up the world-renowned Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens. And, as if that weren’t enough, they change the entire display five times a year so visitors always have something new to enjoy.

“It’s definitely challenging,” laughed Bowlen, “but it’s such a joy to be surrounded by so much beauty and to watch people’s faces as they take in the colors and textures of the gardens.”

This is how the Conservatory celebrates the Lunar New YearThis is how the Conservatory celebrates the Lunar New Year — Photo courtesy of MGM Resorts International

Each January, the Conservatory pays tribute to the Lunar New Year, followed by themed displays celebrating spring, summer, fall and holiday. It takes 150 people working around the clock for six days straight to change out the 14,000-square-foot space – a process you can watch unfold on the Bellagio’s webcam – and transform it into Designer Ed Libby’s seasonal vision.

Currently, that means a cultural journey through the Land of the Rising Sun, complete with a 32-foot-high replica of Osaka Castle, one of Japan’s most iconic landmarks.

To give you an idea of what a typical display entails, here’s a look at spring by the numbers:

  • 65,000: Number of blooming plants featured
  • 2,000: Number of carnations used in each cherry blossom topiary found throughout the display
  • 10: Varieties of tulips used throughout the display, including Sunset Tropical, Rococo, Ice Lolly and more

You’ll also see butterflies – a sign of good luck in love in Japanese culture – flitting throughout the display, and a traditional tea house honoring the grace, etiquette and hospitality of the age-old Japanese tea ceremony.

The Conservatory pays tribute to Japan in its spring displayThe Conservatory pays tribute to Japan in its spring display — Photo courtesy of MGM Resorts International

Sure, all of this looks beautiful and effortless but it requires lots of that secret Vegas magic to actually make it happen.

Underneath the Conservatory, there’s a whole invisible world – the “Catacombs,” as Bowlen refers to it – where an intricate irrigation system consisting of trays on tables provides water to trees and topiaries. Flowers and shrubs are watered by hand and, after a couple of weeks, flowers are recycled into mulch, which is switched out every show to prevent insect infestations, and replaced.

Although Libby, Bowlen and their team try to use as many natural materials as possible, they incorporate three to four new props in every show and repurpose some old ones.

“Our harvest displays have frequently featured our talking tree – it’s absolutely become a fan favorite,” said Bowlen. “Guests love to see it.”

More than 20,000 people visit the Conservatory every day, with a whopping 30,000 a day coming to see the holiday display, which is Bowlen’s personal favorite.

The holiday displays are personal favorites of Jerry BowlenThe holiday displays are personal favorites of Jerry Bowlen — Photo courtesy of MGM Resorts International

“It’s always so creative and inspiring,” he said, “and it’s amazing to see everyone taking photos and posting them on social media.”

Because of that, every display features a photo op in the center of the Conservatory so people can interact with and share the beauty around them.

The Bellagio opened in October 1998, and the Conservatory became so popular immediately that, by 1999, it started featuring five different shows yearly.

Bowlen has been in what he calls his “dream job” for five years, and is invigorated by the constant challenges of being responsible for all the botanicals from the front door of the Bellagio, throughout the lobby (under the gorgeous Chihuly ceiling) and into the Conservatory.

He explained that, because the Conservatory is, literally, in the center of the hotel, it’s even more complicated to switch out the displays and have all kinds of machinery discreetly move plants and props through public spaces without disturbing guests or creating a spectacle.

One of the previous fall harvest displays at the ConservatoryOne of the previous fall harvest displays at the Conservatory — Photo courtesy of MGM Resorts International

He also pointed out the synchronicity between the flowers on and behind the reception desk with the current display, and expressed the importance of getting each display right.

“I don’t get a redo on it,” he said.

Once a new display is up, Bowlen enjoys spending time in the Conservatory checking out guests’ reactions and learning what they like best.

Of course, once they realize he’s the one in charge, they start bombarding him with questions about how to get their own gardens to look like these and what kind of products to use and when to trim.

“I can’t stay there too long because everyone wants to know how to replicate the gardens and, the truth is,” he admitted, “I can’t recreate this at home either.”

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