How would you like to spend an afternoon in a tropical paradise? For an afternoon’s relief from winter dreariness, beautiful Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania is one of our favorite places. The centerpiece of this 1050-acre showplace is Longwood’s elegant conservatory complex, almost five acres under glass. A rainbow of color at any time of year, the conservatory at Longwood is particularly appealing during the cold winter months. We visited during the first week of January, the first time we’ve seen Longwood decorated for Christmas.
Since it was winter and cold, we bypassed the extensive outdoor gardens, which by themselves would be worth spending an entire day and evening in the warm season. After an elegant lunch in the restaurant, we spent the afternoon touring the huge conservatory.
Longwood is a must-see for any gardener or landscaper, and well worth the trip for anyone else, at any time of year. Originally purchased from William Penn in 1700 by the Pierce family, Longwood began as a working farm. The Pierces started a tree collection, which they passed along to Pierre S. du Pont when he bought the property in 1906 to save it from development. Du Pont built the estate into a garden paradise, adding formal gardens, fountains, water features, an outdoor theater, a huge pipe organ and an extravagant conservatory.
Entering through the Exhibition Hall, we saw stunning red Poinsettias and winter Begonias surrounding lush green lawns, fountains and waterfalls. Stately columns support creeping fig and Bougainvillea vines. Camellias and jasmines were in full bloom. Behind the three main halls is an elegant ballroom and an amazing pipe organ with over 10,000 pipes. The “Garden Walk” was ablaze with annual flowers. Each plant has a sign to identify it. We stooped to enter the Children’s Garden, filled with intricate water features and horticultural displays for children, all in miniature.
There is a palm house very similar to the Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati, where birds flit between tropical plants and banana trees to the sound of a burbling brook. Longwood’s bonsai collection is about the same size as the one at Krohn, including specimens over 100 years old. There is a large Mediterranean garden featuring plants preferring moist, cool winters, hot dry summers, and high light levels.
The “Silver Garden” displays gray and silver-foliaged plants adapted to dry, arid landscapes. The meandering aisle resembles a dry streambed surrounded by rock outcroppings covered with succulents and cactus. Behind it we walked through a narrow passage named for the small cinnamon trees, covered with fluffy yellow flower clusters, arching over the walkway. Huge Christmas cactus plants hung over our heads.
The Orchid House was packed with hundreds of fragrant plants in full bloom, rotated from Longwood’s collection of more than 3,200 different types of orchids. There was a colorful Christmas wreath made of orchids hanging over the entrance. Next door was the Banana House with twenty varieties, as tall as 32 feet. From there we entered the Tropical Terrace through the dangling 20-foot-long roots of a princess-vine suspended from the ceiling. Among familiar house plants hangs a huge rabbit’s-foot fern, planted in 1953 and weighing approximately 500 pounds.
The fruit house has decades-old orchard trees trained on sturdy wire mesh. The du Pont family had a year-round supply of ripe fruit from this house, including grapes, nectarines, figs and lemons. I covet the greenhouses, with their “cost-no-object” bronze fittings and spotless aluminum plant benches. The potting room is particularly irresistible; staff and volunteers were busy preparing displays for the next season in this tidy and well-organized facility.
Walking through the Rose House, we noticed that the soil was dry and sandy, and spotlessly clean of leaves and petals. Seeing hundreds of roses in full bloom in January lifted our spirits. But wait, there’s more! The Cascade Garden, with water splashing into clear pools and lush, richly-textured plants clinging to the walls. The Fern Passage, a cool, green passageway lined with exotic ferns and bromeliads. A collection of insect-catchers like Venus flytraps and pitcher plants.
It’s fun to fantasize what kind of gardens we could have if we were as rich as the du Ponts. Longwood’s stunning high-ceilinged greenhouses and graceful architecture make a perfect backdrop for thousands of flowering plants in peak condition, year in and year out. We didn’t stay for the Christmas light show, but in past years we’ve enjoyed the spectacular lighted fountains. Some of them reach 130 feet high. In nicer weather it’s hard to leave the beautiful grounds, with ancient trees, topiary, reflecting pools, immaculate vegetable and herb gardens. As we hurried to our car we were already looking forward to our next visit.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021. formation is available online at www.goodseedfarm.com or call (937) 587-7021.