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Botanica ready to open its Chinese Garden of Friendship

The 87-foot-long dragon in Botanica’s new Chinese Garden of Friendship holds his favorite treasure in his mouth – a pearl.
The 87-foot-long dragon in Botanica’s new Chinese Garden of Friendship holds his favorite treasure in his mouth – a pearl. The Wichita Eagle

Visitors to Botanica can be transported to another continent in the new Chinese Garden of Friendship that will officially open there on June 5.

With its moon gates, foo dogs, roof beasts and 87-foot dragon, the garden is a tribute to Wichita’s sister city in China, Kaifeng (pronounced kye-FONG).

The traditional scholar garden of a third of an acre has plants, of course, but the emphasis is on structures, art, water and creatures – including real koi fish in the pond that have already spawned. The elements have been selected to reflect Chinese culture, including its spirituality and mythology, geography and history, language and art.

“People are amazed at the cultural impact, and that was our goal,” said Marty Miller, director of Botanica. Members of Wichita’s Chinese community were involved in the planning, and Miller visited Kaifeng in 2012. “That’s why we chose the scholar garden. Scholar gardens are pretty prevalent in Kaifeng.”

While there have been some sneak peeks and a couple of events in the garden already, it will open officially on Friday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and remarks by Miller and Mayor Jeff Longwell, along with dance performances, tea, treats and tours of the garden from 3 to 4:30 p.m. It’s included in Botanica admission. That will be the beginning of eight days of activities – “Eight Days of Wonder” – celebrating the garden.

Donors paid for the Chinese garden. Jayne Milburn, who will celebrate her 100th birthday during the Eight Days of Wonder, on June 10, is the main donor. H. Russell Bomhoff also made a major gift; he passed away in January. Many others also have given money to the project. And garden clubs have come to the fore with plants and expertise.

The garden’s features that are unique to it among the gardens of Botanica include a natural pond in which the filtering system pushes up from the bottom, two pavilions whose roofs are made of concrete Chinese tiles that were mortared in (“it’s all a work of art,” Miller said), and walls that “float” on piers so that their weight doesn’t crush plant roots underneath.

Some of the main elements:

▪ The Rose Wind Pavilion. It overlooks the pond and the koi in it. The pavilions and walls are decorated with roof beasts – sort of a Chinese version of a gargoyle.

▪ Fu Cang Long the dragon. Artist Jennie Becker mortared together 170 pieces of glazed porcelain clay to create an 87-foot dragon snaking along the top of a wall that undulates through the center of the garden.

“The dragon is the keeper of the underground treasure,” Miller said of its symbolism in the garden. “The pearl in his mouth is his favorite part of the treasure. Every time a dragon goes underground and comes back up, there’s a volcano. We’re keeping him here so we don’t have any volcanoes.” (Miller could not make similar promises about earthquakes.)

Cut into the Dragon Wall are moon gates that let the garden’s stream pass through to the pond.

▪ Qingming scroll. This is a replica on metal of a revered 800-year-old mural depicting Kaifeng’s Qingming Festival. “We’re sharing our direct link to our sister city through the scroll,” Miller said.

▪ Leak windows. There are 10 windows that “leak” light into the garden and allow glimpses of the garden to escape to the outside world. In fact, you can look into the garden through some of these windows from the parking lot.

▪ Treasured Friend Pavilion. This pavilion sits at the top of the garden, representing a mountain pavilion that is supposed to promote inner peace. A waterfall alongside pours over limestone rocks from the Flint Hills.

▪ The Plum Wall. Becker painted what is probably the most intensely colorful part of the garden, this wall in the Rose Wind Pavilion featuring a plum tree. The plum blossom is the national flower of China. This wall is painted on both sides, so be sure to check it out on the parking-lot side as well.

“I think the garden’s beautiful,” said Becker, who has been working on art for it since last July. Chiaw-Weai Loo also did some of the artwork, including the illustrations that were digitally transferred to tiles in the patio area of the garden. The originals of those artworks will be sold in a silent auction that will start Friday and go until the Zen al-fresco fundraiser on Sept. 11.

Becker notes that celadon green is the highlighting color of the Chinese garden, covering the benches, artwork within some of the leak windows, and the dragon. “It’s one of the first glazes the Chinese used, and they used it for centuries,” she said. Its use in the garden “brings a lot of continuity.”

Becker also loves the rock formations and plants in the garden. About 200 different types of plants can be found there, said Janet Gordon, a Botanica horticulturist who was in charge of getting the plants. She studied what was growing in other Chinese gardens and compiled a list of 40 or 50 that could survive in Wichita. She then tried to find those plants.

“We were only able to get a little more than half,” Gordon said, including a Cunningham fir, Chinese hydrangea vines and Coral Reef sedums.

“I was disappointed we couldn’t get them all, because some of them are unusual,” she said. But Gordon hasn’t given up; she’s still hoping to find a Yulan magnolia, for example, and another Prunus mume (she has only been able to get one so far). “It is going to evolve.”

The Wichita Rose Society, the Wichita Hosta Society, the Prairie Winds Daylily Society, the Wichita Daylily Society, the Wichita Area Iris Club and the Kansas Pond Society also contributed expertise and plants.

“They researched ones with Chinese origins and made donations, so we have different ones from these groups in here,” Gordon said. “They helped out tremendously.”

Miller has been traveling to other gardens to get ideas for events here, such as the lantern festival going on at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Botanica hopes to have Sister Cities gardens representing French and Mexican culture someday.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

If you go

Chinese Garden’s ‘Eight Days of Wonder’

Botanica is celebrating the opening of the Chinese Garden of Friendship with eight days of activities:

Ribbon cutting and grand opening: Speeches by Botanica director Marty Miller and Mayor Jeff Longwell, dance performances, tea, treats, tours of the garden. 3 to 4:30 p.m. Friday. Included in Botanica admission.

Chinese arts and crafts for children: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 6. Included in admission.

Tai Chi & Tea: Grace Wu will give a lesson in tai chi in the Lotus Hall followed by tea from the Spice Merchant. 1:30 to 3 p.m. June 7. Included in admission.

Chinese painting tutorial: Paint the Towne will lead participants in painting a plum blossom; those 21 and older can bring libations. 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. June 8. Free.

Tuesday on the Terrace: The weekly summer event on Botanica’s terrace will feature music by Uche and a Chinese meal; 5:30 to 8 p.m. June 9. $7 admission; dinner $8, plus drinks for sale.

Lunchtime art lecture: Artists Jennie Becker and Chiaw-Weai Loo will talk about their styles; 12:15 p.m. June 10. Included in admission; $8 lunch available from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

Sisters Cities Celebration: Chinese beer tasting, Ping-Pong exhibition by the Wichita Table Tennis Association, learn more about Kaifeng and the Qingming scroll. 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. June 10. Included in admission.

Family Game Night: Kids can play with giant lawn-game pieces starting at 5:30 p.m. June 11, Grace Wu will teach kung fu at 6:30 p.m., and “Karate Kid” will be shown at sunset. Admission $3 (free with membership).

Chinese tea tasting, koi kites and scarf-making crafts: 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. June 12; reservations required; call 316-264-0448, ext. 107. Free, except $10 to make a scarf.

Information: botanica.org, 316-264-0448

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