Native plant sale sells out

Thank you to everyone who supported our native plant sale this year! We are now SOLD OUT! Our remaining inventory of native honeysuckle, blueberries and native azaleas will be available in the garden gift shop this week while supplies last.

If you’re looking for more native plants to add to your garden, check out our recommended native plant nurseries list:

Winter WonderLights returns to UGA’s State Botanical Garden in November

For the second year, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia at the University of Georgia will transform into a sparkling wonderland of lights this winter.

Winter WonderLights, presented by the UGA Office of the President, takes visitors along a trail of sparkling animals, including a couple of new ones, a Garden of Delights, a Cone Tree Plaza, and a re-envisioned Candy Cane Lane among other magical features.

The show will run on select evenings from Nov. 23, 2022, through Jan. 8, 2023. The Alice Hand Callaway Visitor’s Center will be transformed into a holiday market, where guests can shop for gifts and souvenirs, including a chocolate Winter WonderBar created specially for the light show by Condor Chocolates in Athens. Cookies, s’mores, Condor hot chocolate and coffee will be available for purchase throughout the light show.

“We are thrilled to offer Winter WonderLights for the second year beginning this November,” said Jenny Cruse-Sanders, State Botanical Garden director. “Our focus is to connect people to places and nature, and we are committed to being a leader in botanical education, horticulture, research and conservation. Winter WonderLights allows us to show off our world-class botanical garden and generate support for our impactful programs.”

winter wonderlights

Krislyn Johnson and her 6-year-old daughter, River, enjoy hot chocolate at Winter WonderLights.

The half-mile trail will take 45-60 minutes to complete and is fully ADA accessible. Tickets are $15 per person and free for children three and under. Members of Friends of the Garden will receive a 10 percent discount, as will groups of 20 or more people.

Tickets for designated dates and times to visit the show are available now at

The Athens Banner-Herald recently named Winter WonderLights the best local event in Athens in its Best of the Best Awards. The show attracted over 45,000 visitors last year.

The show is presented by the University of Georgia Office of the President. Premium sponsors are Georgia Power and Athens Ford, the official dealership of Winter WonderLights. Other sponsors include Barron’s Rentals, Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center and members of the local community.

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia is located approximately 70 miles east of Atlanta, at 2450 S. Milledge Ave., Athens, Ga. Free off-site parking and shuttle services will be provided in two UGA-owned and controlled lots off South Milledge Avenue. Paid parking at the garden is available for a limited number of vehicles and must be purchased when you buy tickets to the show.


About the State Botanical Garden of Georgia:

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach, is one of the state’s most treasured resources. With 313 acres of natural areas and cultivated gardens, the State Botanical Garden offers unique experiences for nature lovers. The garden offers eight specialty gardens, including the Alice H. Richards Children’s Garden, and over five miles of trails within an Audubon-designated important birding area. Throughout the year, the garden hosts educational programming, including camps, classes, workshops, concerts and festivals for visitors of all ages. Facilities across the garden feature art exhibits and annual lectures, including the Porcelain and Decorative Arts Museum.

The garden is also the headquarters for the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, a network of more than 50 institutions, agencies and organizations committed to ecological land management, native plant conservation, and protection of rare and endangered plants.

UGA expands access to native plant certificate program

At UGA’s Georgia Mountain Research and Education Center, adult students study bees under a microscope, build bee houses and tour the center’s ethnobotanical garden.

It’s all part of the Bee-utiful World of Native Bees course, an elective in the curricula for the State Botanical Garden of Georgia’s Certificate in Native Plants program. Offering the course at locations throughout the state, like this one in Blairsville, Ga., is an attempt to educate more Georgians about the importance of native plants and pollinators.

“Participants can do their volunteer hours anywhere within the state as long as there is a native plant focus to their project,” said Cora Keber, education director at the UGA State Botanical Garden of Georgia.

The Certificate in Native Plants program began as an adult education program at the State Botanical Garden in Athens in 2007 as a way to connect volunteers with native plant conservation and restoration projects.

To earn the certificate, students must complete four core classes in basic botany, plant taxonomy, natural communities of Georgia and plant conservation. Students also have to take six elective courses and complete 16 volunteer hours and two field trips. The program takes about one year to complete but is designed for students to work at their own pace.

Core courses are taught virtually, but electives—like the Bee-utiful World of Native Bees— are offered in different regions of the state.

“The state of Georgia is diverse in plant species,” Keber explained. “What we have here in Athens is not around the state and vice versa, so offering electives in various parts of the state creates that plant diversity connection to particular locations.”

Garden partners teach the elective courses. This year, courses are scheduled at the Georgia Mountain Research and Education Center, the Gaskins Forest Education Center about 20 miles east of Tifton, Ga., and the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, Ga., just north of Atlanta.

“It’s great that they’re branching out and having classes around the state so people can see varying ecosystems of native plants,” said Becky Griffin, community and school garden coordinator for UGA Extension in Blairsville, Ga., who led the native bee elective course.

Participants in Griffin’s course included Beth Thornton, who teaches zoology at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton.

Beth Thornton looks at a bumblebee under a microscope during “The Bee-utiful World of Native Bees” class in Blairsville, Ga.

“I am very interested in bees,” Thornton said. “When I was a student at UGA, I took a honey bee biology class, and I wanted to go into raising honey bees.”

She didn’t have the opportunity to raise bees while raising her family, Thornton said, but now that her children are grown, she has resumed learning about bees. The Bee-utiful World of Native Bees was the last course she needed to fulfill her Certificate in Native Plants requirements.

The bee course was the first one for Helen Bailey, from Gainesville, Ga. After working in health care for more than 30 years, Bailey decided to pursue the native plants certificate.

“I’ve always loved nature, and I’ve recently been very concerned about the environment,’’ said Bailey, who is creating her own pollinator garden to support native bees.

For more information or to register for the program, visit

Writer: Laurel Clark,

Contact: Cora Keber,

State Botanical Garden takes the guess work out of planting pollinators

Spring, summer and fall, it’s easy to select the best plants to draw pollinators to your yard. Just look for the Georgia Pollinator Plants of the Year label at Georgia nurseries and at the State Botanical Garden gift shop.

The plants are nominated by gardeners, horticulturists, entomologists, ecologists and green industry professionals throughout Georgia, and selected by a committee. The committee announces the plants a year in advance to give growers time to increase the stock of the plants for the public.

The pollinator plant program began in 2020 and has been successful among State Botanical garden supporters, said Heather Alley, the garden’s conservation horticulturist.

“They have been excited about the program and have purchased the selected plants,” Alley said. “We’ve seen high demand for the plants at our spring and fall plant sales.”

The program was designed to encourage the use of high-impact plants that support pollinators in private and commercial gardens. It is funded in part by the Vaughn-Jordan Foundation.

The 2022 plants, in the four categories of the program are:

Spring bloomer – Carolina lupine

Thermopsis villosa

About: Carolina lupine is a 4-foot-tall perennial wildflower in the pea family. In spring, this plant has tall spikes of eye-catching canary yellow flowers.

Growing conditions: Prefers full to part sun in well-drained garden soil with average to high moisture.

Conservation value: Supports many native bees and other pollinators.

Summer bloomer – Mountain mints

Pycnanthemum species: Pycnanthemum incanum, P. flexuosum, P. muticum, P. tenuifolium, P. virginianum

About: Each of the selected mountain mints are 3- to 4- feet-tall, with long-lasting white summer blooms that attract many different pollinators.

Conservation value: Supports many native bees, wasps and butterflies.

Fall bloomer – Blue mist

Conoclinum coelestinum

About: Blue mist is a perennial wildflower in the sunflower family that grows 3- to 4-feet-tall with bright blue flowers from late summer into fall.

Growing conditions: Prefers full to part sun in well-drained to average garden soil with high to low moisture.

Conservation value: Supports many native bees, including leafcutter bees and butterflies.

Georgia native – Coral honeysuckle

Lonicera sempervirens

About: Coral honeysuckle is a perennial blooming vine with woody twining stems that bloom with tubular red and yellow flowers throughout much of the year.

Conservation value: Supports bumble bees, small bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. The leaves support the larval stage of clearwing moths and azure butterflies. Finches, thrushes and robins feed on the fruits in winter.

All of the 2022 pollinator plants of the year are native to Georgia, suited to Georgia’s climate and soils, and are attractive garden plants.

“The Georgia Pollinator Plants of the Year program is a great way for Georgians to introduce pollinator plants into their home gardens,” said Jenny Cruse-Sanders, director of the UGA State Botanical Garden of Georgia. “This year’s selected plants are beautiful, and the support they provide pollinators is critical.”

Pollinator conservation has become increasingly popular over the last five years, and people want to help support pollinators, Alley said. But it can be difficult to know what to do.

“It’s hard to know what plants to choose when there are so many options,” she said. “This program helps Georgia gardeners make fantastic plant choices.”

Drew Watkins is a managing partner of Frank A. Smith Nurseries in Stone Mountain, Ga., and serves on the Georgia Pollinator Plants of the Year selection committee. The nursery primarily sells to the wholesale industry and grows all the selected pollinator plants.

Watkins, a UGA graduate, said the nursery has been producing the pollinator plants since the program started, and they can’t keep them in stock. He said landscapers and designers planting perennial borders want pollinator plants as part of their design.

“The program benefits Georgians by sparking an interest in learning about the value and critical importance of pollination,” Watkins says. “Most of our food crops are dependent on pollination.”

The selected plants provide pollinator services, which are essential to our environment. Pollinators are necessary to produce over 85 percent of the world’s flowering plants, including more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species, according to the Xerces Society.

The State Botanical Garden, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach, sells the pollinator plants of the year at its spring and fall plant sales, in the garden’s gift shop and works with growers and retailers in Georgia to produce and market the plants.

For more information about the pollinator plants of the year program and to find a directory of native plant nurseries, visit

As COVID cases dropped, Clarke County students began returning to UGA

For Clarke County School District students, getting back to normal means going back to UGA for annual field trips.

In the fall, a group of pre-Kindergarten students were the first Clarke County School District (CCSD) students on campus for a school trip since early 2020. Their visit to the UGA State Botanical Garden of Georgia included collecting acorns from the woods and learning how squirrels store them to eat during the cold winter months.

The activities at the garden were related to the five senses, something the students would study in the pre-K curriculum this year. They wandered the Hummingbird Trail, looking for birds, matched color cards with the colors of plants in the garden and enjoyed a puppet show.

“With the pandemic, the students have been limited to the classroom, so it’s beneficial for them to leave the school and do something new,” said Caroline Joseph, who teaches pre-K at Whit Davis Elementary School. “They love puppets and will remember the characters.”

Students learn about the senses through exploration at the State Botanical Garden.

Experience UGA began in 2013 through a partnership between UGA and the CCSD. Facilitated by the Office of Service-Learning, a UGA Public Service and Outreach unit, the program’s objective was to introduce even the youngest students to learning on a college campus and meeting UGA students. The program grew gradually each year with the full CCSD student body, almost 12,000 students, visiting UGA in 2018-19.

“For most students, this is the first field trip of their life,” said Audrey Stadler, children’s education coordinator at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. “Some may never have been to the garden or had access to nature, and they get to meet new people and experience new things.”

The Office of Service-Learning received more than $10,000 this spring from the UGA Parents Leadership Council (PLC) to help defray the costs of running Experience UGA. Since 2017 the PLC has been a loyal supporter of Experience UGA by contributing to both the transportation of CCSD students to UGA’s campus as well as the Experience UGA Ambassador Leadership Program. The Ambassador Leadership Program trains UGA students to become service leaders at the university and later in their careers.

Exerience UGA and in-person CCSD classes stopped in mid-March 2020, as cases of COVID-19 continued to increase in Georgia and around the world. The 2020-21 school year began with students learning remotely, returning to the classroom in November. There were intermittent closures through spring 2021 as cases rose and fell. During that time, UGA students, faculty and staff created online content to continue the field trips, remotely.

The pre-K students were the only ones scheduled for Experience UGA field trips in fall 2021. Other grades began returning in early 2022.

Earlier this year, the eighth grade students visited the UGA Special Collections Library, where they continued their year-long study of Georgia history. They explored a replica of former U.S. Sen. Richard Russell’s Washington D.C. office, studied a mural that depicts the state’s history and learned new things about Georgia through the various exhibits and hands-on experiences.

“Getting to visit special collections with Experience UGA as an eigth-grader helps solidify a year spent learning about Georgia’s history in school,” said Mazie Bowen, public service coordinator at the UGA Special Collections Library. “Students are able to confront the past, envision themselves as history makers, and have the opportunity to visit UGA.”

During the 2021-22 school year, about 3,000 CCSD students from the pre-K, seventh, eighth and eleventh grades took Experience UGA field trips. Every school in the district and the CCSD Early Learning Center was represented on at least one visit. The school system and UGA hope to continue the partnership in 2022-23.

“Right now, we anticipate hosting nearly every grade level on campus,” said Josh Podvin, Office of Service-Learning assistant director. “And we will continue to enhance and expand our virtual resources on the Experience UGA virtual site.”

Experience UGA depends on student volunteers and private funding to provide an annual field trip opportunity to every Clarke County school student.

Contact Josh Podvin,, for more information about the program.

Contact Anne Moser,, to make a gift to the UGA Foundation in support of Experience UGA.

UGA State Botanical Garden dedicates new porcelain museum, garden updates

With the snip of a red ribbon, a cheer and a lot of smiles, State Botanical Garden of Georgia donors, faculty and staff watched as UGA leaders officially dedicated the garden’s newest additions: the Porcelain and Decorative Arts Museum, Discovery and Inspiration Garden, and accessible main entrance.

“The new facilities and gardens are transformative,” said Jenny Cruse-Sanders, garden director. “They increase accessibility, provide for an enhanced experience at the garden and will attract new audiences to the garden and UGA. Each also helps guide us in understanding the important role that nature plays in our lives.”

The museum was a longtime dream of donor Deen Day Sanders, who donated her 50-year collection of porcelain and art from around the world to the garden.

“The university remains deeply grateful for Mrs. Sanders’ vision, determination and the help that she provided in getting others to contribute to this important project,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead. “Her efforts extended beyond the museum itself as she thoughtfully considered the area surrounding it and how we were going to make the museum and garden accessible for so many others.”

The pieces on display in the museum highlight how art is inspired by flowers, butterflies, birds and all aspects of nature. The two-story building includes beautiful gallery spaces as well as a large classroom that opens onto the display gardens to enrich the learning experience.

Located on a hill behind the museum, the accessible entrance includes an elevator from the parking lots.

The Discovery and Inspiration Garden surrounds and extends beyond the Porcelain and Decorative Arts Museum, inviting visitors of all ages to explore and discover.

Narrow beds of plants at the eye level of every visitor invite close viewing, and a pond supports a range of fauna, including frogs and dragonflies. The Discovery and Inspiration Garden features native plants for pollinators and educates visitors about the interrelationships between birds, insects and plants. The garden also includes a lawn where outdoor classes and events can be held.

“These projects represent a significant milestone in the garden’s history,” said Jennifer Frum, vice president for UGA Public Service and Outreach, which oversees the garden. “They will, no doubt, open many educational opportunities for faculty and students and citizens from across Georgia.”

Deen Day Sanders gives remarks at the dedication of the Porcelain and Decorative Arts Museum, Discovery and Inspiration Garden, and accessible main entrance.

Donors to the accessible entrance project included Deen Day Sanders and the Day family, the Callaway Foundation, James B. Miller Jr., Mike and Betty DeVore, Tom B. Wight, The Garden Club of Georgia Inc. and donors from across Georgia. Chuck and Suzanne Murphy provided support for the Discovery and Inspiration Garden.

“Today is a day of jubilation,” Deen Day Sanders said. “I can say that I’m grateful to all those who made it happen. It wasn’t about the vision, but the completion of the museum for the garden and to have it open to the public, for people to come to see it and enjoy it.”

The Porcelain and Decorative Arts Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Sunday from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. For more information about the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, visit

Learn more about the Porcelain and Decorative Arts Museum at

UGA Partnerships Yield Tangible Results In Fighting Floodplain Invasive Species

What happens when research scientists and conservation practitioners work together to restore Georgia’s floodplains?

Collaborative efforts led by University of Georgia graduate students and conservation practitioners at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia show how vital partnerships are in restoring the floodplains of Georgia. Linsey Haram and Rachel Smith, PhD graduates from the Odum School of Ecology, began their floodplain restoration research project in 2017 in collaboration with Heather Alley, a conservation horticulturist with the State Botanical Garden, a unit of Public Service and Outreach at UGA. For three years they, along with Odum School undergraduates Diane Klement and Hannah Mone, conducted experiments to determine the most effective methods of removing invasive plants. They recently published their findings in Restoration Ecology.

“Emphasizing the value of academic and nonprofit partnerships for this type of work is super important,” said Haram. She explained that bridging the gap between researchers and practitioners can lead to strides in conservation practices; the floodplain restoration project conducted by the UGA partnerships certainly reaped the benefits of this collaborative effort.

Alley has dedicated years to restoring the floodplain bordering the Middle Oconee River and has worked to rid this area of invasive species, organisms that are not native to an environment and whose introduction causes harm to the ecosystem they colonize. For many ecosystems, such as floodplains, invasive species pose a threat to biodiversity, compete for resources with native plants and animals, and damage the overall health of the environment. Restoring floodplains to their natural state is a challenge, as conservationists must determine the most effective method of removing invaders, while also having the least negative impact on the delicate ecosystem they are trying to restore.

Floodplains are areas of relatively flat land that are prone to frequent flooding. Stiltgrass is a low-lying plant species native to Asia that is now widespread across much of the U.S. It forms dense stands that disrupt forest ecosystems, and has become especially problematic in flood plains. Because floodplains provide numerous services both economically and environmentally, they are an important area to protect.

The floodplain restoration project presented a unique opportunity for scientists from UGA to partner with the State Botanical Garden. Smith and Haram, with their invasive species expertise, and Alley, with her years of on-the-ground experience, worked together to design a controlled experiment to analyze what method and frequency of application were most effective for stiltgrass removal.

“It was a really great opportunity to work with the scientists at the University of Georgia to help address one of our questions with our floodplain restoration,” said Alley.

The team established ten experimental blocks to test the effectiveness of restoration methods (combinations of herbicide, native planting, and native seeding) and application frequency (single and annual) in combating the stiltgrass. The native plant of choice was river oats. Alley explained that as a cool season perennial, river oats would already be “full and robust” by the time stiltgrass began to sprout in the warmer season.

“We found that combining herbicide and native planting was the most effective way of reducing the invasive annual stiltgrass,” said Smith.

The results showed that the combination of a single application of herbicide and native planting helped reduce the mass of stiltgrass within the floodplain, while also minimizing the harm to non-targeted native plant species.

Former UGA Ecology graduate students Linsey Haram, PhD ’18, (pictured) and Rachel Smith, PhD ’19, worked in collaboration with Heather Alley of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia on a project to fight floodplain invasive species using native plants.

This detailed restoration project provides empirical evidence for practitioners to use in restoring floodplains from invasive species, offering an effective, data-driven methodology for stiltgrass removal.

For the State Botanical Garden, the next plan of action is to continue adding more native plants such as river oats to select areas of the floodplain to reduce the presence of persistent invasive species. These areas include visible spots open to the public, and areas that already have native plants established.

As for Smith and Haram, this restoration project was an important step in their professional journey. After graduating from UGA, these researchers have continued their work in the field of conservation.  Haram is currently a Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C., working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Smith is currently working as a NatureNet Science Fellow with the University of Virginia and the Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve.

The findings for the floodplain restoration project were published in the October, 2021 edition of Restoration Ecology: Smith, R.S., Alley, H., Klement, D. and Haram, L.E. (2021), Academic-conservation partnership reveals trade-offs in treatment method and frequency needed to restore invaded floodplain. Restor Ecol e13597.

Writer: Katie Tong,

Contact: Rachel Smith,; Linsey Haram,; Heather Alley,

Winter WonderLights draws crowds during its inaugural season

Thirty-two nights.

More than 45,000 visitors,

One million lights.

The University of Georgia’s holiday light show, presented by the Office of the UGA President, exceeded expectations, selling out more than a week’s worth of nights and drawing people from 43 states, including Alaska.

“Thank you to our ticket holders, sponsors and community partners who supported us in the first year of our holiday lights show, Winter WonderLights,” said Jenny Cruse-Sanders, State Botanical Garden of Georgia director.

“The addition of Winter WonderLights allows us to increase our impact in the community and across our state, and it supports our mission to create and nurture an environment for learning, inspiration and engagement through horticulture, conservation, science-based programs and lasting partnerships.”

The show, which ran from Dec. 1, 2021 to Jan. 9, 2022, featured 11 illuminated displays along a fully accessible half-mile path.

While many people were from Athens and surrounding counties, many also came from across the state and the country, many taking advantage of the show while visiting for the holidays.

Tony Eubanks, an Athens resident since 1980, walked through Winter WonderLights with a group of friends on a foggy Friday night before Christmas. Eubanks said he’s not a huge fan of the holiday season.

“It’s too commercial, too much pressure, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that,” he said.

However, after walking through the light show, he was in a magical state of mind.

“It was just wonderful,” he said. “I thought, ‘I have Christmas spirit for the first time in years.’ I can’t wait to see what it looks like next year.”

Jennifer Duvall and her son Walker Duvall volunteered at Winter WonderLights one night in early December. An eighth-grader at Oconee County Middle School, Walker had an opportunity to volunteer at the show through the school’s Beta Club.

Jennifer Duvall and her son Walker volunteer at Winter WonderLights. (Photo credit: Jennifer Duvall)

“He asked me if I would do it with him, and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do that with you,’” Jennifer Duvall said.

“Volunteering showed him how much of an impact you can have on people. It sparked his belief in something he should be doing more of.”

Katherine Czarick, a UGA senior pursuing a degree in marketing, and three of her roommates visited the show on one of its last nights, before the spring semester began in January.

“I was actually shocked by how bright and how colorful it was, there were so many things to look at all at once,” Czarick said. “It was exciting to see something like this and it brought back childhood memories for me.”

A Winter WonderBar, produced for the light show by locally-owned Condor Chocolates, was a hit. More than 500 were sold over the 32 nights of the event.

When the light show ended in January, 190 pounds of winter vegetables growing in the Garden of Delights in the Alice H. Richards Children’s Garden were harvested and donated to Campus Kitchen, the student-powered hunger relief program based in the UGA Office of Service-Learning.

Children’s Garden Curator Katie McCollum harvests winter vegetables to donate to Campus Kitchen. (Photo by Laurel Clark/PSO)

More than two years in the making, the display was designed to connect visitors to the garden and nature in a unique way, while also providing a new seasonal experience in Athens. Proceeds from ticket sales, parking and merchandise will go back into the garden, supporting education, horticulture and conservation programs. With the exception of special events, like Winter WonderLights, annual festivals, classes, camps and special programs, entrance to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, a UGA Public Service and Outreach unit, is free.

In addition to the UGA Office of the President, Winter WonderLights sponsors included Friends of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, Trumps Catering, Synovus, Condor Chocolates, Candy and Malcolm Burgess, Chris and Lanse Leach, Sandra and Trey Paris, Barron’s Rental Center, Westminster Christian Academy, Carol Cuff, Betsy and Mark Ellison, Brenda and Ham Magill, Athens Ford, Betsy and Roger Birkholz, Sandy and Jim Boyles, Joanne and Robert Hecht, Heritage Garden Club, Southeastern Growers, Inc., American Pest Control, Snyder Remarks and See Spark Go.

For more information about the State Botanical Garden, visit

Writer: Laurel Clark,, 706-542-6014

Natural Inspiration: UGA brings art and nature together at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia Porcelain and Decorative Arts Museum

The newest tree at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia needs no water or sunlight. Its 75 blossoms are made of kaolin and bone china. They bear images of Danish botanicals, meticulously reproduced from folio-sized illustrations drawn in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Read the full story at: 

Hand-crafted brightly lit animals delight children and adults at UGA’s first winter light show

Eight whimsical creatures are stirring up magical memories at the UGA State Botanical Garden during the inaugural Winter WonderLights event that runs through Jan. 9.

Created by local artists using welded metal and thousands of dazzling lights, a cardinal, a unicorn, polar bear, penguin, bluebird, goldfinch, giraffe and elephant dot the landscape along the half mile path of the show, which is presented by the Office of the President of the University of Georgia.

Local metalwork company St. Udio made the metal frames for the animals, and local artist Chris Taylor wrapped the sculptures using holiday lights and zip ties.

Caty Swanson, the lead vent hood fabricator at St. Udio, built most of the animals, working off of sketches she made from looking at photos of the animals, said Mike Harboldt, who owns St. Udio. She used machines like a compact bender and hand roller to sculpt the metal into the shapes she needed to create the animal forms and welded the pieces together, he said.

“She built all of the animals, so any life those animals have really came from her,” Taylor said. “I can’t emphasize what an amazing job she did. Every time I went to go pick one up [before installing the lights] I was just floored at how beautiful, they were works of art in and of themselves.”

Local artist Chris Taylor wrapped the eight animal sculptures seen throughout Winter WonderLights using holiday lights and zip ties. The metal frames for the animals were made by Caty Swanson at St. Udio. (Photo by Shannah Montgomery/PSO)

Taylor started working on the animals in August, and installed the giraffe and finished the unicorn the day the light show opened, on Dec. 1.

“We are grateful that St. Udio and Chris Taylor worked so hard to create the animal sculptures for Winter WonderLights,” said Jenny Cruse-Sanders, director of the State Botanical Garden. “The animals add so much fun and light to the show, especially to the children’s garden.”

All the individual lights on the animals are zip-tied onto the frames. Each animal has at least 2,000 lights. Taylor said the giraffe and the polar bear both have the most lights, 5,600 lights each, or the equivalent of 28 boxes of string lights.

Taylor said you can’t find any information about how to wrap holiday lights onto sculptures like these, he had to figure it out on his own, and the learning process involved a lot of trial and error.

“I cut a few wires and got shocked a couple of times,” Taylor said. “I learned a lot about LED lights, I think we all did.”

He said it took at least 12 hours to wrap each animal in lights, but a better idea of the time spent on the animals may be how many movies and TV shows he watched while making them.

“The polar bear, I watched the entire series of The League, the elephant I watched almost all nine seasons of Seinfeld,” Taylor said.

Taylor worked with the designers of the show on the colors for the animals. He decided that the unicorn should have a rainbow mane, tail and horn, and the penguin should be purple with orange lights.

“It was very collaborative, everybody that worked on it, we all worked together,” said Taylor, who spent 17 years as the director of art for the UGA Terry College of Business.

“That Hairy Dawg picture with the penguin, that meant a lot to me. That was really, really special. He’s got his head cocked, and the penguin’s got its head cocked, and to know that I became part of the face of this whole thing, I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Taylor said.

Hairy Dawg checks out the penguin sculpture that’s part of Winter WonderLights. (Photo by Shannah Montgomery/PSO)

He added that it has been a thrill to see the animal sculptures in the garden. “Knowing that so many people will see it has been a little daunting. I’ve had shows before, but I’ve never had this many people.”

“We are now a part of all these kids’ memories, forever. If this continues, there will be kids in Athens that will be coming back to this for years and probably bringing their kids 15 years from now. That’s very powerful,” Taylor said.

For more information about Winter WonderLights and to purchase tickets, which are only sold online, visit

Writer: Laurel Clark,, 706-542-6014