10 Dazzling Things about Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum

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November 8, 2022

This is the 10th year of Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum, the spectacular exhibition that showcases the beauty of wintertime trees through dramatic lighting. To mark the occasion, the Arboretum sat down with the exhibition’s designer, John Featherstone of Lightswitch Inc., to point out 10 things that will make this year’s Illumination special. 

Lake magic. As you enter Illumination and stroll around Meadow Lake, you’ll see a new kind of magic in Radiant Reflections, floating towers of reflection whose lights respond to the flow of wind and water.

Play time. You’ll be able to use your body to interact with colorful lights and create theatrical shadows in playful new touchless experiences. As the favorite Hug-a-Tree experience returns, guests of all ages can show tall trees their love and see them respond to a warm embrace.

Trees around us. The tree-filled landscape of the Arboretum makes the Illumination experience unique. “Our show isn’t fundamentally about the lights,” Featherstone said. “It’s about inviting people to see the beauty of the natural environment and what it means. It really is about seeing trees in a different light.”

Little treasures. As you encounter one light-filled sensation after another, Featherstone encourages you to slow down and notice small things: the way light plays on the bark and branches of trees, the joy of children, the music.   

A musical tapestry. All along the mile-long path, music will be woven into the experience so that “it breathes and ebbs and flows throughout the walk,” he said. Familiar holiday favorites, symphonic masterworks, and music from many cultures will all be part of the soundscape.

Energy savings. This year, 98 percent of the lights in Illumination are LEDs, in some 1,400 fixtures. Each year, Featherstone said, the installation includes more lights and uses less energy. “We’re always trying to reduce our impact,” he said. “At the same time, the advance of technology allows us to do things we couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.”

The breath of trees. The perennially popular Treemagination experience will be more intricate and inspiring this year, evoking the life processes of trees as they transpire water through their leaves, provide oxygen, and sequester carbon.

A brilliant decade. “It’s remarkable that we‘ve reached 10 years,” Featherstone said. “When we began planning the first edition of Illumination a decade ago, there was nothing like it at any public garden in the world. It was based on hunches, wishes, and hope that we would create things that would resonate with people.” It has resonated: More than 231,000 people attended Illumination in 2021, up from 88,000 the first year.

Nesting lights. After about a mile of head-turning spectacles and joyous play, an all-new experience, inspired by the architecture of birds’ nests, will envelop visitors in a long lacework of lights from which they emerge into the central plaza of The Gerard T. Donnelly Grand Garden.

A grand finale. The experience of Illumination will reach a dramatic finale in the garden’s sweeping vistas. “We’ve always wanted to do a really big finale for Illumination, and this fantastic new garden is the perfect setting,” Featherstone said. “The lighting will really make you feel like you’re in the middle of the action.” Throughout the music-filled, four-minute finale sequence, color and light will ripple, shoot, dance, and delight. “Then hot chocolate,” he said with a smile. 


Enjoy this spectacular video preview and interview with John Featherstone in honor of the tenth anniversary of Illumination: Tree Lights at the Arboretum.

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