Arboretum's Illumination brightens winter

Illumination at Morton Arboretum encourages visitors to love trees in winter

It's easy for the Morton Arboretum to fulfill its mission to educate visitors about trees for most of the year.

In spring, the buds on the trees are coming to life, and some even produce beautiful flowers that attract visitors.

Summer brings green leaves and warm weather that makes it fun to explore the grounds.

And the spectacular colors of fall draw crowds in droves to take in the autumn fireworks while learning a thing or two about conservation and ecology.

But winter is a little trickier. With the cold weather and the barren trees, it can be tough to get people excited about visiting the arboretum's 1,700 acres.

On Friday, Nov. 20, that all changes.

For the third year in a row, the Morton Arboretum will launch its popular Illumination program that aptly encourages visitors to “see trees in a new light” during the evening hours through Jan. 2.

The arboretum works with lighting company Lightswitch to cover a milelong, 50-acre path of trees in theatrical, eco-friendly LED lighting, using shades of vivid electric blue, hot pink and neon green.

Along the way, visitors will encounter 11 different “experiences” — programmed lighting, video and sound integrated into the landscape.

Each stop allows visitors to interact with trees that respond to voice or touch, to find out how a tree responds to a big hug, or to control the action of videos projected upon the arboretum's tall trees.

Since its inception in 2013, Illumination has welcomed more than 210,000 visitors from 40 states and four foreign countries.

“When this began, the idea was always to showcase the trees — we never wanted to lose sight of that — but also create something people have never seen in this area,” arboretum spokeswoman Kelley Regan said.

“Its safe to say that the response was exciting because we attracted a lot of people who have never been here before or never heard of us before,” she added. “It was great to help a new audience think trees are something we should be paying attention to all year round.”

The overwhelming response not only encouraged arboretum staff to continue the program, but to build on it each year.

In 2015, new experiences will include lighting effects on Meadow Lake, as well as Ornament Hill, where a series of glowing orbs of varying colors and sizes placed on the arboretum's Frost Hill create a glittering vista visible from many locations on the trail.

Other past Illumination experiences will be updated, too:

• Symphony Woods will feature new music recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra;

• Music is added to the Garden of Light, which features the music and lights moving in sync with the arboretum's hedge garden; and

• Tree Harmony allows visitors to sing to the trees to activate a series of programmed LED lights that rain down from the trees.

Other visitor favorites are returning, too, including Hug a Tree, where visitors can hug a tree and watch it respond, and Crystal Promenade, where 24 chandeliers of varying sizes light the forest.

Because of the cold Chicago-area weather, Illumination does offer chances to warm up, either inside or outdoors. In addition to fire pits along the route, visitors can check out live music in the Ginkgo Room and roaming carolers along the trail on select nights. Performers include Guitarra Azul, the White Saddle Band, Frank and Dave and the Frozen Robins carolers.

Seasonal snacks will be sold, with a specialty adult drink each week, including apple hot toddies, pumpkin spice cider and sea-salted caramel cocoa.

And for those who want to delve deeper into the tour with additional interpretive information about each experience, visitors can download the free Morton Arboretum Apple app and launch the Illumination Tour.

“We want each person to take away that Illumination was a great experience and to learn a little about trees,” Regan said. “If each person walks away with that, we've accomplished our mission.”

Illumination visitors should order their tickets in advance online at or by calling (630) 725-2066. Ticket prices are higher on peak dates, and Morton Arboretum members receive a discount on all dates.

Guests are welcome at any time between 5 and 8:30 p.m., with lights out on the exhibit at 9:30 p.m. To avoid the rush of visitors that is common in the first hour, the arboretum recommends postponing your entrance until about 7 p.m., if possible.

Staff also recommends making extra time to walk from the parking area to the grounds and dressing warmly for the winter weather.

  Lighted trees and snowflakes decorate the entrance to the one-mile Illumination experience at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Bev Horne/
  Morton Arboretum visitors can change some of the Illumination light displays by hugging some trees and singing to others. The experience opens Friday and continues through Jan. 2. Bev Horne/
  Ornament Hill is a new feature this year at the Illumination display at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Bev Horne/

Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum

<b>When:</b> Entrance times from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, to Wednesday, Jan. 2

<b>Where:</b> Morton Arboretum, 4100 Route 53, Lisle

<b>Cost:</b> $17 to $20 adults, $11 to $13 children ages 2 to 17, free for younger children; discounts for members

<b>Info:</b> <a href=""></a> or (630) 725-2066

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