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Longwood Gardens of Pennsylvania: A grand, must-see garden destination

The Orangery is the grandest and most formal of all the indoor displays. Creeping figs grow up the columns, prolific fuchsias hang from above and annuals change with the seasons.
The Orangery is the grandest and most formal of all the indoor displays. Creeping figs grow up the columns, prolific fuchsias hang from above and annuals change with the seasons.

I had never heard of Longwood Gardens just west of Philadelphia before visiting relatives in New Jersey last summer. They knew of my interest in gardens and said, “We have somewhere to take you that you won’t believe!”

What a surprise to be introduced to this grand 1,000-acre estate garden, developed and preserved by Pierre DuPont in the early 1900s. DuPont (1870-1954) was the greatgrandson of the original founder of the E.I. DuPont Company. Pierre DuPont was not only an industrialist, but a gardener, farmer and conservationist.

In 1906, DuPont purchased the property from a Quaker family named Peirce, which had planted an arboretum on the farm in 1798. DuPont’s main interest was in saving the fine collection of trees for posterity and incorporating elements of grand gardens he had visited throughout the world.

Considered a premiere horticultural showplace, the gardens feature 11,000 different types of plants indoors and out, an open-air theatre, a 600-foot-long “flower walk,” and a conservatory containing 4-1/2 acres of display and research greenhouses. As we entered the grounds, walking by fountains and masses of blooms, I knew I had indeed entered a gardener’s paradise.

The 20 outdoor gardens feature every imaginable type of garden — topiary, rose, hillside, peony, lilac, woods, idea garden and children’s garden, just to name a few.

Most spectacular is the Italian Water Garden, featuring 600 jets of water that run continuously, which was based on Villa Gamberaia near Florence, one of the 20 Italian villas and 50 French chateaux DuPont visited to obtain architectural and water feature ideas. He had first become interested in water gardens at the age of 6 while visiting the display of water pumps creating fountains at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

After walking through the outdoor gardens, we enjoyed lunch at the Terrace Restaurant, which includes both a cafe and a formal dining room.

From there we entered the conservatory, home to three separate wings containing 5,500 types of plants. Built in 1919 by DuPont, and originally heated by fuel oil, this “perpetual Eden” truly took our breath away.

Imagine walking into a room full of 300 orchids all in bloom and then strolling through a canopied fern passage to a tropical Palm House with lush undergrowth and small rivulets of water, each area with a climate suitable to the plants’ habitat.

We felt right at home in the conservatory’s Mediterranean Garden, where the protea, kangaroo paws and Spanish lavender looked just like our Central Coast.

Nearby was the Banana House, with 20 types of bananas, ranging from 30 feet tall to a dwarf plant small enough for a container.

The Silver Garden was also familiar, with a dry, arid feeling featuring gray and silver plants, olive trees and cactus.

We were amazed by the Estate Fruit House, climate-controlled to create spring in the middle of winter, allowing for nectarines, grapes and melons to mature on formally trimmed trees.

After an awe-inspiring hour in the conservatory, we visited the Student Exhibition Garden, where current projects from the many educational programs are featured. Besides school and youth programs, teacher and professional gardener courses, the Longwood Graduate Program at the University of Delaware trains students for careers in public horticulture.

We discovered at the end of our one-day visit that we definitely needed to schedule another to explore the East gardens: Peirce’s Woods, with a seven-acre eastern deciduous forest of “rooms” featuring native plants, Peirce’s Park with 200-year old trees, and The Meadow, Lakes and Forest Walks along woodland paths.

As we left DuPont’s garden, now run by the Longwood Foundation “for the sole use of the public for purposes of exhibition, instruction, education and enjoyment,” we were in a state of awe at this national horticultural treasure. As our relatives had said, we couldn’t believe it.

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