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Petal Power

Flowering festivals provide the driving force for a Midwest
road trip this spring.

It’s springtime in the Midwest. Time to throw off our winter doldrums and check out the array of floral festivals that provides incentive to crawl out of hibernation. From showy azaleas in the Show-Me State to tulips in Topeka, Mother Nature has put on her best dress just for us.


Above: A parade float in Charleston, Mo., is decked out with colorful flowers and equally cheery children. Gayle Harper

In Title: A garden in Charleston, Mo., is a harbinger of spring. Gayle Harper

Below: Multi-colored tulips grace a walking path along Lake Shawnee in Kansas. Shawnee County Parks + Recreation


Here are four festivals to help you plan a colorful getaway.

Show me dogwoods and azaleas

I slide into the stream of people strolling in the soft, warm light of paper bag luminaries lining both edges of the sidewalk. Above us, branches laden with white dogwood blossoms reach toward each other, creating a canopy that flutters gently with the breeze. A delicate scent, slightly floral and slightly spicy, fills the air and makes me smile. In fact, everyone seems to be smiling.

It’s Saturday night and the candlelight tour, the highlight of the Dogwood-Azalea Festival in Charleston, Mo., is well underway. Along the six-mile Dogwood Azalea Trail, spotlights illumine the dogwoods and the brilliantly colored azalea bushes, transforming them into glowing wonders. Neighbors are gathered on wide porches of gracious, comfortable old homes, sipping sweet tea and mint juleps and calling out greetings to the parade of admirers passing by. Charleston, always a charming small town in southeast Missouri, is tonight a spectacular fairyland.

The candlelight tour may be the crown jewel of the festival, which is loaded with fun for all ages. Events include a parade, a carnival, an ice cream social, and a fried pie-eating contest. There is also a fish fry and dog show, carriage rides, a plant sale, and live music everywhere, including a concert at the First Baptist Church that features an organist and 12 pianists performing on several pianos. It is, as Karen Teeters, the director of Charleston’s Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, says, “…a step back in time in small-town America.”

The 49th Annual Dogwood-Azalea Festival will be April 20–23. Many of Charleston’s approximately 6,000 residents will be part of the effort as tens of thousands of visitors turn out for the festival. Don’t delay if you’d like to be among them. Charleston’s three motels fill up quickly, but Sikeston, Mo., which is 16 miles north of town, offers additional lodging.

Tulip Time in Pella

For a spring flower festival with a European flair, consider Tulip Time in Pella, Iowa. This picturesque town, settled by Dutch immigrants in 1847, honors that heritage year-round. Each spring, however, as many as 150,000 visitors come to Pella, located about 43 miles southeast of Des Moines, to help them celebrate all things Dutch. This year’s 82nd Annual Tulip Time event will be May 4–6.

Entering Pella, which has approximately 10,300 residents, gives one the feeling of having been instantly transported to the Netherlands. More than four decades ago, city fathers wisely drew up an ordinance protecting the existing Dutch architecture and requiring that every new structure have a Dutch facade. As a result, Pella has the classic look of a village in the Netherlands. Stroll the downtown shops and you’ll find locally made Gouda cheese, Dutch pastries, and intricately painted wooden shoes.

During Tulip Time, of course, the main attraction is the 200,000 tulips in a multitude of colors and varieties. If you encounter some you’d like in your own yard, most are labeled, and the Pella Garden Club will take your order and ship your bulbs at the appropriate time.

There is not one, but two parades every day, plus Grandstand shows and tours of Vermeer Mill and Historical Village that features a 12-story-tall windmill. There will be traditional music, singing, and dancing (while wearing traditional Dutch costumes and wooden shoes, of course).

According to Valerie Van Kooten, the director of the Pella Historical Society, “There are two seamstresses in town who make most of the costumes worn by townsfolk, and they are incredibly picky that every detail be accurate and authentic.” Often, a costume may include a treasured piece of jewelry or a hat passed down through the generations.

Then, there is the food. Vendors, restaurants, and bakeries offer iconic Dutch favorites like the Stroopwafel, a crunchy, caramel-filled waffle cookie that becomes warm and gooey when perched on a steaming mug of coffee. There are the fluffy, S-shaped pastries called “Dutch letters,” traditional spiced beef and cheeses, and a unique specialty called “Pella bologna.”

Indiana’s Dogwood Festival

Orleans, Ind., calls itself a “Little Town with a Big Heart.” And this town of just more than 2,000 folks in southern Indiana celebrates the coming of spring in a big way. As they have for 49 years, Orleans is inviting blossom buffs to the Annual Orleans Dogwood Festival, planned for April 26–29 this year.

“There’s a rich culture of music, arts, and traditional crafts in this part of the state,” says Robert S. Henderson Jr., executive director of the Orleans Chamber of Commerce, “and those are always a highlight of the festival. It’s just a great celebration of small-town life.”

Hundreds of dogwood trees blanket the town in white and pink blooms. Events include a citywide yard sale that attracts bargain-hunters, a carnival, and a parade. You can even pucker up and join in the bubble gum contest where bubbles are measured and the biggest are prizewinners. At the Rain Gutter Regatta, you can cheer for your favorite tiny handmade sailboat as it races in rain gutters.

When you’ve worked up an appetite, try a “Hoosier sandwich,” enormous fried pork tenderloin, or join the crowd at the ham and bean supper. Lodging options are plentiful in French Lick, Ind., about 20 miles southwest of town. If you reserve early, you might get a room at Spring Mill State Park and Inn, about five miles north of Orleans.

Tulip Time in Topeka

Tulip Time in Topeka, Kan., stretches over a few weeks, so there’s plenty of time to coordinate your visit with the weather and the peak bloom of more than 100,000 tulips and daffodils. The ninth annual Tulip Time festival will be April 7–23.

Residents have recently pooled their efforts to revitalize their downtown and create “pocket parks,” small green spaces tucked into urban landscapes. Now, they have filled them with spring-blooming flowers for all to enjoy, making a downtown stroll something special.

Events are centered at the larger, more established gardens, like Gage Park and Ted Ensley Gardens at Lake Shawnee, which are beautiful throughout the year. During Tulip Time, however, they literally explode with swaths of colorful blossoms.

At Old Prairie Town at the Ward-Meade Historic Site, you can experience Topeka’s history amid the lush, tulip-filled Botanical Garden. Tulips at Twilight will kick off the festival here on April 7 and 8. Enjoy a number of historical buildings before you shop for souvenirs at the Mulvane General Store on the town square.

A number of national chain hotels, several with AAA Three Diamond ratings, plus bed-and-breakfasts, are found in Topeka.

When the days start to lengthen and the first flowers open to the warmth and light, Midwesterners want to be outdoors, reconnect with neighbors and friends, and share food, laughs, and song. These flower festivals can help you celebrate spring’s glory and make some great memories.

Gayle Harper author of Roadtrip with a Raindrop: 90 Days Along the Mississippi River, is a contributor based in Springfield, Mo.

March/April 2017 Issue


For more information, contact:

Dogwood Azalea Festival,
(573) 683-6509

Tulip Time Festival, Pella,
(888) 746-3882; after mid-March, you also may contact pellahistorical.org/tulip-time
or (641) 628-1541

Dogwood Festival,
(812) 865-9930

Tulip Time, Topeka, (785) 234-1030

To visit Charleston, Pella, Orleans, or Topeka, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTik® Travel Planners, and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Kansas and Missouri through the Free Travel Information Card found online.

Read a bonus feature about gardens in Arkansas



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