The staff members at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington agree that it is their favorite moment:
A holiday visitor is gazing at the miniature U.S. Capitol or at the miniature Jefferson Memorial in the conservatory's courtyard, or at any one of the fanciful structures that line the tracks in the nearby holiday train garden.
"And suddenly they realize they are looking at an acorn or a corn husk and the look on their faces is amazing," said Laura Anthony, coordinator of the garden's visitors center. "I love that moment."
Again this year, artist Paul Busse and his staff at Applied Imagination, a Kentucky-based company, have installed a winter wonderland at the U.S. Botanic Garden that is made entirely of plant materials.
Pine cone scales, corn, vines, bark, cinnamon, leaves, mosses, lichen, sea grass, petals, beech nuts, horse chestnut seeds, mushrooms, gourds, honeysuckle branches - the kinds of things you would find, as he does, walking in the Kentucky woods near his home.
And, as they do only at this time of year, the garden staff unpacks and displays the Washington landmarks Busse has created, including the Supreme Court building, the Washington Monument (with its own miniature reflecting pool), the Smithsonian Castle, the Lincoln Memorial and the first piece the Botanic Garden commissioned from Busse: a miniature of itself.
"The U.S. Capitol is the largest and the most elaborate," said Christine Flanagan, manager of public programs, of the mammoth miniature, which stands 8 feet tall. "It took more than 600 hours to complete."
And in an adjoining room in the conservatory, Busse has created a train garden for the fifth year. The display covers 2,400 square feet and rises in some places to 16 feet above the floor. There are seven trains that wind among more than 40 fanciful little buildings.
Every year, Busse arrives with about two dozen staff members and spends a week installing the exhibits before they open on Thanksgiving weekend. About 70,000 visitors are expected to see the displays before they close Jan. 4.
"Each year it is a little different," said Flanagan. "We start out with some ideas that we would like to see, and we work together over the course of the year."
This year, the Botanic Garden staff asked Busse to take his inspiration from the Dr. Seuss story The Lorax, an allegory about the environment and the dangers of industrialization. In the book, the Lorax, a gremlinlike creature, speaks for the trees.
In addition, the staff wanted parts of the train garden to face the outdoors through the conservatory's tall terrace windows so visitors could enjoy it from the outside looking in. The train garden is lighted until 11 each night.
"We wanted that 'nose pressed up against the window' feeling," said Flanagan.
A landscape architect by training and a model-train enthusiast, Busse combined his work and his hobby by building a modest-train garden at the Ohio State Fair in 1982 and then did some window displays for Cincinnati businesses. They were all created out of plant material.
His real break came when the New York Botanical Garden, looking to increase crowds during the winter months, hired him in 1991, delighted with the sample houses he provided. He has since built more than 130 miniature landmark structures for New York, including the Chrysler Building, the Brooklyn Bridge and St. Patrick's Cathedral. He began working with the Washington botanical garden in 2004.
His creations, whether it be the enormous U.S. Capitol building or the tower where Rapunzel was held captive, can hold your attention for so long, you wonder where the time went. His work is beyond three-dimensional mosaic. It is as if that gourd was meant to be the dome on the Jefferson Memorial, but only Busse could see it.
His wife, Margaret, who created the fanciful and dreadful Gremlins in this year's exhibit, and his son Brian, are also part of the team. Brian created the miniature cave dwellings - new this year - that are located in the walls of a tunnel under the railroad.
They evoke the cave-exploring Busse once did with his grandparents, and his son executed his father's memories with particular delicacy.
That tiny lamp that glows at night in one of the caves? The shade is made from the nest of a paper wasp, but when it is lit, it looks like it came from Tiffany.
if you go
"Windows to Wonderland" is at the U.S. Botanic Garden, 100 Maryland Ave. S.W., Washington, through Jan. 4. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. every day (including Christmas and New Year's). On Dec. 9, 11, 16, 18, 23 and 30, the Conservatory will be open till 8 p.m., offering live holiday music. Admission is free. Parking is available at night and on weekends; by permit only on weekdays. Visitors are encouraged to take public transportation. For more information, call 202-225-8333 or go to www.usbg.gov.
online For a slide show of artist Paul Busse's miniature landmarks and his holiday train garden, go to baltimoresun.com/gardening