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Invite a couple dragons from the Missouri Botanical Garden's Lantern Festival to dinner and they come equipped with their own bowls, spoons, cups and other porcelain — 40,000 breakable pieces. Strung together with kite string using ancient hand-tying techniques, they stretch from the Climatron to the Spink Pavilion, fighting for a colorful pearl in the center of the Milles Sculpture Garden ponds.

Most St. Louisans will not see the elaborate, illuminated works of art unless they celebrate the 15-day Chinese New Year celebration in China.

"About three years ago, Lynn Kerkemeyer, our special exhibits manager, had a conversation with Si He, a curator with the 'Flora of China' project. He thought she really should consider doing a lantern festival to celebrate the 25-year project," said Holly Berthold, with the garden's public information office. The massive botanical research project will culminate in a 22-volume text cataloging the huge diversity of China's plants.

Of course, paper lanterns strung amid trees wouldn't pass muster after exhibits like Dale Chihuly glass, dinosaurs and Niki De Saint Phalle sculptures in recent years.

In China she researched the stunning spectacle. By April of 2011, the project to showcase Chinese culture, legends, traditions and symbolism was underway as part of its "Year of China."

"They had to figure out how to secure them, how we would place them in the garden," Berthold said.

When delivery began in April, with only eight weeks before the exhibit opened on May 26, artisans went right to work. "They drew lines in chalk on the pavement, then took the metal and put it down and started shaping it. They stood it up, moved it over and silkers started their work — intricate, coordinated work — to tie it again to the actual framework," she said.

Elaborate designs half a football field long and up to three stories high were planned, produced and staged in satin and steel with the aid of skilful artisans, particularly from Zigong in the western province of Sichuan, center of the lantern-making industry in China.

Displays are colorful, bright and a bit billowy in silk during daytime hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For the exhibit, the Garden opens again at 6 p.m. Thursday to Sunday through July 29, every evening Aug. 1 to 19. The second version heightens the view at 8 p.m. when lights illuminate 26 displays, some with animation. Besides dragons to behold, there are warriors, opera faces, lotus and apple blossom flowers, pandas amid bamboo, sailing vessels, moonlit pathways, emperors, thwarted lovers and Buddha.

Holly's first view of the display elicited tears.

"I thought I knew what to expect, but it is so hard to wrap your mind around just the sheer elegance of the sets and how very large they really are," she said. By night or by day, every look reveals something new.

The Brookings Interpretive Center is an interactive playground for kids to create Asian arts and crafts, dress up in robes and kimonos and watch videos of the real land.

Sassafras Cafe varies the Asian dish on its seasonal menu nightly. Concessions in the Garden include crispy pork pot stickers, vegetable egg rolls and crab rangoon, plus chicken banh mi sandwiches, Szechwan grilled chicken kabobs, pork and vegetable fried rice and chilled lo mein noodle salad.

Those planning to visit the Lantern Festival can taste Asian cuisine at home with Sweet-and-Sour Veggie Meatballs (www.MorningStarFarms.com).

SWEET-AND-SOUR VEGGIE MEATBALLS

2 packages (8.5 oz. each) veggie meatballs, prepared as package directs

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

4 tsp. cornstarch

1/3 cup vegetable broth

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

2 tbsp. reduced-sodium soy sauce

1 tbsp. light-colored corn syrup

2 tsp. grated ginger root

1 large red bell pepper, cut in 1 inch pieces

3 green onions, cut in 1 inch pieces

In medium saucepan, stir together brown sugar and cornstarch. Stir in broth, vinegar, soy sauce, corn syrup and ginger. cook and stir over medium-high heat until boiling and thickened. Stir in bell pepper.

Place meatballs in bowl or crockery pot, spoon sauce on top, gently stirring to mix. Sprinkle with green onion. Keep warm over low heat up to 2 hours.

Serve with cocktail picks, if desired, over rice.

Makes 14 (two-meatball) servings.