Sunday, September 7, 2014

Longwood Gardens: Flower Fairlyand

 6 September 2014  continued

Our next big adventure was just two of us:  my brother-in-law Sandy and I decided to go to Longwood Gardens.  Richard opted to stay home and deal with boring stuff like trip insurance.  Longwood Gardens is located in the Brandywine Valley, not far from the battlefield of the Battle of Brandywine (Revolutionary War, and the British won this battle – we stopped at the battlefield and stayed long enough to read the sign).  Anyway, Brandywine is a river, valley, and general area mostly WSW of Philadelphia, and close to Delaware.  Very rural area with picturesque small towns and lovely old houses, some looking as if George Washington slept there, they are that old.  Beautiful stone or brick colonial architecture, most way too close to the modern road so that you know they once had a front yard looking out at the horse trail.

Longwood Gardens was originally known as Peirce Park.  The Peirce family bought the land when they arrived from England way back whenever, and started buying more land and planting more trees, and more of both, until pretty soon they had the fledgling nation’s first arboretum.  The collection of trees featured native species from the region, but soon more and more foreign trees were brought in.  By the time the original Peirce family sold it, the park was so huge the only entity that could afford to buy it was a lumber company – and of course they bought the place to cut down and harvest all those gorgeous trees.

One of the du Ponts, Pierre, was living in Wilmington, Delaware, and decided to save this beautiful park from the sawmills.  He bought the property in 1906 and developed it into a huge park and gardens, with glass-enclosed conservatories, fountains, flower beds, on and on.  He and his wife entertained the extended family at this site (Pierre was the oldest of twelve children, so it was a huge family even though he and his wife never had children), and continued to enjoy the property until Pierre died in 1954.  (His wife predeceased him.)  The land, buildings, and plants were left to the public – in fact, the du Ponts allowed boating on the lakes during their lifetime. 

Now, this property houses one of the largest greenhouse structures in the world, as well as some plants that are extinct in the wild.  Plus various hybrid plants have been developed here – if you are a gardener, you may have seen the Longwood hibiscus, rose, or waterlilies.


It was GLORIOUS!  Absolutely amazing!  The entrance is set amidst hydrangea hedges.  We parked and walked in, and were surrounded by floral beauty even before we entered:  the bathroom at the entrance features a topiary mosaic, with meticulously groomed trees.  A bouquet of richly-colored flowers adorns the sink.  The map is folded into a little packet, the cover a photograph of lavender stalks in a green field.  There was so much attention paid to tiny details that added to the whole experience, making this more than a visit to a beautiful park.  This was like an entry into the world of flowers, but more as a connoisseur – as if we were at a wine tasting, but only of the best vintages of champagne.  Here we were flower connoisseurs at a floral tasting, as it were, of hand-selected plants and flowers of only the finest colors and shapes and types.

In fact, this 1,077 acre park has some 1,000 employees and volunteers, who meticulously manicure hedges and topiary trees with exacting precision.  There are all kinds of botanists working behind closed doors, and the professional staff was hard at work, although willing to talk to visitors if we asked.  But the volunteers are almost like museum docents, where they become knowledgeable enough to educate the general public about what they see, but also take care of some of the more menial tasks.  We saw volunteers sweeping fallen blooms, or deadheading flowers (removing the dead flowers, which gives the plant more energy to send out new blossoms), or talking to visitors about the incredible waterlily garden, one of the most unique in North America. 

Longwood has collected platter waterlilies, which are from South America – these are some of the craziest plants I’ve ever seen!  Platter waterlilies are just that – waterlilies that, instead of the little round lily pads, have enormous platter-sized leaves.  Only these aren’t turkey-sized platters – oh no, these are four- to six- to even eight-foot round platters for serving, oh, maybe a whole cow.  Or the world’s biggest pizza.  SERIOUSLY HUGE leaves!!!!  With an edge of leaves standing up, so any gravy won’t spill out.  The platter waterlilies came from two different river regions in South America, one kind of plant having a shorter edge but with red leaves, the other having a taller edge with green leaves.  The two plants would never meet in nature, there’s too much land and maybe a mountain range between the rivers – but here at Longwood, the botanists did their plant cross-breeding and created a hybrid platter waterlily with a tall edge of red leaves – way cool!  

I could go on and on about the waterlilies – some bloom during the day, others at night.  One opens up during the day, a scarab beetle goes in, the flower closes – the beetle pollinates the flower during the night, and the flower changes color from white to pink and, when it re-opens in the morning, the gender of the flower has actually changed.  Just amazing stories like that.

So walked past the topiary gardens up to the Conservatory, modeled after the Crystal Palace from the grand exhibition in Europe.  Built from 1919 to 1921, the twenty or so rooms create a whole little world.  But before we went in, we had to watch the main fountain garden from the terrace – this is where people sit and watch light and music shows at night, and fireworks on special occasions, the colors reflected in the bubbling fountains.

We walked around the enclosed conservatory gardens, all the indoor section – all four acres of conservatory garden, back and forth, not missing a thing.  Oranges, grapefruits, rivers, waterfalls, fountains for children, orchids, palm trees, hibiscus in color combinations I’ve never seen – flower fairyland!  By early afternoon we were needed a break, and had a bite of lunch at the Zagat-rated café; we sat at a corner table overlooking the gardens, and it was just delightful.

Then, re-energized, we walked to the Peirce-du Pont House for a quick look, then took the elevated boardwalk through the forest and crossed a corner of The Meadow, a new feature here – invasive plants have been removed and native wildflowers and grasses have been planted, creating an environment for bees, butterflies, birds, and probably small mammals.  There’s a small art gallery at the far end, with a lovely walk through the meadow including a bridge.  The entire scene looked like an Andrew Wyeth painting, very appropriate since he once lived in this area.  It was just delightful, but we had a destination in mind, and we just walked through one corner and onward.

Onward to the Italian Water Garden – the du Ponts spent some time touring around Italy, and fell in love with the water gardens featuring decorative fountains among the usual geometrically-planted flora.  I think this was my favorite area in all of Longwood, the Italian Water Garden.  It was cool here, with a little sprinkle of water occasionally splashing out of a fountain, with gurgling and splashing water and constantly changing fountain configurations, a little Mediterranean oasis in the midst of rural Pennsylvania.  The place truly captured the Italian aesthetic.  And of course now I want a little water garden, somewhat Renaissance in design, in my future back yard.  It also was very romantic, and young couples seemed to be lingering here.  It was the perfect setting for a wedding, although the water noises might drown out the vows and any music.  But it truly was a perfect setting for some grand romantic occasion.

Then onward through more forest, with a few red birds that looked like cardinals, but I always think of cardinals as winter visitors to the NE.  And over to the flower garden walk, a path through bed after bed of seasonal flowers – dahlias, gerberas, chrysanthemums, asters, some roses, and a gorgeous purple thing that, well, I don’t know the name, it looks something like a cross between a poppy and a rose.  In an incredible rich purple.  With occasional drooping orange trumpet flowers hanging from sculpted trees.

As I said, it was just glorious.  Flowers are always wonderful, and to be in a place where they are tended with such loving care that they grow and blossom and shine to their fullest beauty is just an incredible experience.  Actually, that was one of the things that really emanated from all the volunteers and staff – they really cared about the plants, and wanted the park and gardens to glow, to sparkle, to be the most perfect park ever.

And as someone who loves flowers, who grew up in the flower generation, I loved it all!!!!



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