PGMA Winner: The Mirage

Las Vegas needs no introduction. Known the world over as an entertainment and gaming center, this gambler's mecca arose from desert sands that seem the most unlikely setting for such a thriving attraction. One of Las Vegas' premiere draws, The Mirage resort hotel, adds to the surrealistic Las Vegas atmosphere by creating an environment that smoothly transports visitors from desert to tropical paradise.

The horticulture department at The Mirage is one reason for the success of this illusion. Its stated objective "is to dispense with the guests' belief that they are in the middle of a desert. If we have accomplished that, we are successful." Since its opening in 1989, The Mirage landscape staff has achieved its goal thanks to dedicated personnel. Jim Gibbons, who previously worked at San Diego Wild Animal Park, has headed the staff since its inception.

The Mirage is situated on The Strip, which means it must compete with endless light displays. To stand out in such an environment, the horticulture department uses every possible means to make a bold statement. Extensive landscape lighting for nighttime visibility, innumerable palms, orchids and other tropical plants, and lots of water all create a scene few visitors can forget. Of course, the famous 50-foot, erupting volcano doesn't hurt either.

The Mirage staff maintains about 7 acres of exterior landscapes and 17,000 square feet of interior space, including The Atrium, a 90- by 100-foot glass-dome structure that houses hundreds of palms, cycads and orchids. In addition, the staff is responsible for cut-flower and silk arrangements throughout the hotel. Numbering around 80 employees, the staff is divided into four divisions - exterior, Atrium, silk and floral - that care for these areas.

With a staff of this size, Gibbons can employ various specialists, including 10 certified applicators and a certified landscape water auditor. The floral department consists of 22 floral designers responsible for all interior floral work throughout Mirage Resorts' properties, which include Treasure Island and the Golden Nugget. Their work also includes servicing the two wedding chapels located at Treasure Island, special functions and special needs of VIP guests. Experienced employees from countries such as Costa Rica, England, the Philippines and Mexico add expertise useful for an operation specializing in tropicals.

Remodeling is ongoing at The Mirage, so replanting is a regular part of Gibbons' operation. However, he finds it more efficient to contract for certain operations, such as hardscaping and certain tree-care functions. Consulting architects and designers specify most of the larger projects.

Setting the tone Perhaps more than any other plant, people associate palms with the tropics. Thus, Arecastrum (queen palm), Butia (pindo palm), Caryota (fishtail palm), Chamaerops (Mediterranean fan palm), Trachycarpus (windmill palm), Phoenix (date palm) and Washingtonia (fan palm), along with numerous cycads, grace The Mirage's exterior, setting a tropical tone for arriving guests. The theme continues as one enters the hotel - The Atrium (see photos, below left) is situated in the front of the hotel to re-affirm the resort's commitment to the tropical-garden theme. A combination of 90 real and preserved palms dominate the Atrium, directing and filtering sunlight to reinforce the feel of a tropical forest. Maintaining 40- to 80-foot palms is no easy task, so the crews use a cabled scaffolding system to trim, treat and clean the palms, as well as to work on silk arrangements placed high in the canopy.

Orchids are a staple of the Atrium's interiorscape. Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Oncidium and Phalaenopsis are some of the types The Mirage obtains from suppliers in California and Hawaii. At any given time, you are likely to see about 1,300 orchid specimens in the Atrium, complemented by more than 600 Aechmea, Guzmania and Neoregelia bromeliads.

A glass dome in the Las Vegas sun gets very hot. Thus, The Mirage installed a mist system in the top of The Atrium. Whenever the temperature in the dome reaches 115oF, the misters turn on to cool things off.

More-familiar plant material also has its place at The Mirage. Turf totals about 2 acres of dwarf tall fescue. Bedding, which the crews change out four times a year, consists primarily of conventional species such as petunias in spring and fall, vinca in summer and pansies during winter.

The main attractions The Mirage holds one of the best-known attractions in Las Vegas: Siegfried and Roy. This popular magic act dazzles audiences with rare white tigers performing on stage. Capitalizing on the show's popularity, The Mirage maintains a small animal habitat (see photo, opposite page), displaying not only tigers, but other exotic animals as well. Lions, leopards and an elephant, in addition to the tigers, live in a "jungle" that Gibbons' crew maintains. The animals can seriously damage landscapes, necessitating special attention to the areas within the animals' cages. For example, the big cats enjoy digging up and chewing on irrigation lines, forcing the staff to frequently repair the system. The cats also aid crews by "pruning" accessible plants. Protective covers wrapped around palm trunks prevent excessive damage.

A pool, complete with trained, performing dolphins provides additional interest to an already impressive array of attractions. In fact, more than 25,000 visitors seek out The Mirage each day, all contributing their share of foot traffic and automobile exhaust. This requires extra attention to offset the effects that high traffic levels can have on turf and ornamentals. The staff jokingly refers to annuals as "weeklies," due to the need for frequent replacement. Adding to the challenge, the staff must perform its maintenance tasks as discretely as possible to avoid disturbing hotel guests.

Water - a precious commodity The desert climate dictates close attention to water use. This creates special challenges, especially for a facility that cloaks itself in tropical ambiance. The Mirage treats its gray water with a reverse-osmosis system and then reuses it in outdoor ponds, including the well-known volcano water feature. This pond holds well over 2 million gallons of water, and its waterfall pours out 47,000 gallons each minute.

A Rain Bird Maxi V control system handles outdoor irrigation, with drip emitters and sprinklers. It includes more than 8 miles of control wiring, and a three-person crew maintains it, led by a certified water auditor. The system corrects the irrigation water's pH and also has fertigation capabilities. Crews provide supplemental water to bedding by hand as needed.

Pest-control challenges Because The Atrium encloses a dining area, pesticides are not the preferred pest-control strategy in that location. Instead, the staff releases four kinds of beneficial insects within the dome. Cryptolaemus montrouzieri is a beetle that controls mealy bugs; Phytoseiulus persimilis, a predatory mite, is effective against two-spotted mite; Aphytis wasps attack scales; and lacewing larvae feed on several different pests.

Bigger and better Treasure Island resort - under the same ownership - recently merged its operation with The Mirage's, putting the total work force under Gibbons' supervision at around 100. Additionally, The Mirage's owners are constructing yet another resort on The Strip: the Bellagio. Designed as a Mediterranean-style resort, the Bellagio is slated to achieve five-star status. Gibbons will play a significant part in achieving this goal by overseeing maintenance of the Bellagio's landscape in addition to his current responsibilities.

True to its name, The Mirage horticulture department helps fulfill the illusion that is Las Vegas. After all, in the Nevada desert you expect to see cacti, Joshua trees and creosote bushes. Instead, lucky tourists encounter lush, tropical vegetation and sparkling waterfalls, leaving them to wonder: Is it real? Or is it...The Mirage?

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