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Carma Wadley, Deseret Morning News
Glass Urchins are part of Dale Chihuly's "Glass in the Garden" exhibit.

ST. LOUIS — Stepping into the Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis is like entering another world.

The first-ever geodesic dome greenhouse, the Climatron is already an exotic place filled with lush tropical plants such as orchids, banyan and palm trees, cycads and others thriving in a re-created rainforest environment. But for the next several months, there is an added fantasy element: Dale Chihuly's "Glass in the Garden" exhibit.

Utahns will perhaps best remember Chihuly from the exhibit that showcased his works at the 2002 Winter Olympics. The native of Tacoma, Wash., is known for his dramatic and imaginative glass creations — some of which decorated the galleries and ceilings of the Salt Lake Art Center and one of which still welcomes guests to Abravanel Hall.

Chihuly, who was born in 1941, studied glass blowing in college and then received a Fulbright grant to work at the Venini glassworks in Venice, Italy. He now directs a team of studio assistants who execute his ideas. His work is displayed in more than 200 museums around the world.

Since the 2002 Winter Olympics, Chihuly has turned "gardener." Inspired by his mother's love of plants and fascinated by the glass architecture of conservatories, Chihuly has begun incorporating his unique glasswork into natural, garden settings.

The exhibit at the Missouri Botanical Garden is not a traveling show, explains Lynn Kerkemeyer, special exhibits marketing manager. "I think we're the seventh garden to do a Chihuly show, but each one is done specifically for that site. Some of the pieces are the same, but a lot of it is new glass. The sunburst on our Rose Garden trellis, for example, was blown just for us." Chihuly visited the garden four different times to study and plan ways to incorporate his creations into the garden.

Chihuly's first garden show was in Chicago several years ago, "and word spread rapidly in the garden community," says Kerkemeyer. "Everyone was so impressed with how the art and plants juxtaposed."

Suddenly, everyone wanted a Chihuly garden exhibit, and his studios had to start setting limits. But what was exciting, she says, is that "they called us. Missouri Botanical Garden has a reputation as one of the best in the world, and they wanted to come here."

More than four dozen installations are scattered throughout the garden. The majority are in the Climatron conservatory and the Shoenberg Temperate House, but a few others are positioned throughout nearby parts of the garden.

"Glass in the Garden" takes advantage of the unique vistas and vegetation of the Missouri Botanical Garden and can "only be seen here and now," says Kerkemeyer.

It works so well, she adds, because it is so unexpected. "It's magical. You don't expect to see glass art in the garden."

Kerkemeyer likes to think of it as Willy Wonka meets Indiana Jones. "Just as Willy and Indiana are two separate entities that you wouldn't think of putting together, glass and garden are separate mediums, separate ideas. They shouldn't work together this well. But they do. It's just fun."

Chihuly has developed a garden-glass vocabulary to describe his various pieces. There are, for example:

• Persians: With fluted edges, curving forms and jewel-like colors, they are often displayed in overhead groups.

• Nijima Floats: These large glass spheres remind Chihuly of the fishing floats he used to find as a boy growing up in the Pacific Northwest. They are named for an island in Japan that is home to a famous glass center.

• Walla Walla Onions: With pointed tips and shapes resembling their namesake, these colorful glass pieces float on the reflecting pools.

• Ikebana: Named after the traditional art of Japanese flower arranging, they usually have a vessel and several stems.

• Macchia: These ruffled bowls are named after the Italian word for "spotted" and are a result of Chihuly's desire to use as much color as possible in many different combinations.

• Herons: Shaped to resemble the shore birds.

• Urchins: With large centers and tiny radiating petals, they have a whimsical look.

• Green Trumpets: With large, open bowls on tall stems, they resemble both flower and musical instrument.

In addition, Chihuly has created garden grass, reeds, ferns, pods, palms and "flori" (the Italian word for flowers, which he applies to numerous creations in this exhibit) of all shapes and sizes and more — all of them brightly colored, imaginative and attention-getting. His one nonglass creation is a collection of Polyvitro Crystals, made from a polyurethane material that allows for a large, hollow shape. They are a perfect complement to a fountain of cascading water.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has long been an attraction in St. Louis. Founded in 1859 by botanist and philanthropist Henry Shaw, it is a 79-acre oasis in the south part of the city.

Its most recognizable image is probably the Climatron, built in 1960 to incorporate principles developed by R. Buckminster Fuller. The dome is 70 feet high and 175 feet in diameter. Temperatures inside range from 64 to 74 degrees, and average humidity is 85 percent — a perfect environment for the 1,200 different species of tropical plants growing there. In 1976, the dome was named one of the 100 most significant architectural achievements in the United States.

The botanical garden also includes the largest Japanese Garden in North America, a 14-acre spread called Seiwa-en; a children's garden featuring a pioneer village; a formal English garden; a Chinese garden; the Flower Trial Garden; and Shaw's original 1850 estate home.

In the Gladney Rose Garden, you can also currently find a bed of Chihuly Roses, a floribunda rose that was hybridized and named in honor of Chihuly in 2004.

Currently in the Glass in the Garden shop in the Brookings Center, visitors can also watch a video explaining Chihuly's work and the process of glass-blowing and see examples of other series of his work.

The exhibit has been very popular since it opened on April 30. "We've discovered there are Chihuly groupies that travel everywhere to see his shows," says Kerkemeyer. "But the appeal is very broad. Senior citizens, children, everyone falls in love with it. It cuts across all boundaries. It's so unexpected. And you will not see it again just like this."