By Stephanie Cavanaugh
I WAS GAWKING at the mammoth baskets of begonias dangling over a vast, perfectly green lawn and was nudged out of the way by a docent.
She was giving a tour and I was in the way, though I’m not sure how. There’s plenty of elbow room under the glass dome of the Longwood Gardens Conservatory, in Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley, which encloses 4½ acres of flowers and palms, pools, fountains, and fanciful ironwork.
We’re in the East Conservatory, one of twenty gardens within the structure and home to 5,500 types of plants, we’re told. Among the gardens there’s an orangery, an orchid house, a palm house, and a water garden. Flower lined paths lead from one to the next.
Most are accented by hanging baskets of flowers and ferns that are beyond imagining, including a 70-year-old rabbit’s-foot fern (Davallia fejeensis ‘Major’) that’s 9½ feet in diameter and weighs nearly 1,400 pounds, our guide said. My 6-foot-something Prince stands beneath it, and is dwarfed. Get OUT from under there!
I’m ecstatic when I can hold over a Boston fern from one year to the next, always a pathetic sight by April, and its continued existence a real cliff hanger.
How do they water these suckers, I’m wondering, imagining some high-tech system like the ones they use at Safeway to water the veggies, where sudden mists drift over the cauliflower and fog one’s glasses.
They use hoses, the docent said, pointing to a small metal cap in the walkway. This pops open, and the gardeners pull out a hose. The baskets are lowered for watering. With a hose?
In all my visits, I’ve never seen anyone working here, said one listener.
The crew arrives at 6am, the docent tells him. They fluff and fix and water until the doors open at 11am.
This is not the only greenhouse in the 1,077-acre park. Another is set aside for growing and nurturing the plants. If any are misbehaving on the grounds, they can be swooped up and replaced.
Extra plants, by the way, are offered for sale (rather pricily, but what price perfection?) in the gift shop, along with hats and seeds and books and gifts.
Longwood Gardens, in very brief, was created by the grandsons of a Quaker farmer named George Peirce. They carved a 15-acre arboretum from the 402-acre farm, for their collection of trees and plants that by 1850 was one of the finest in the nation.
In 1906 businessman and philanthropist Pierre duPont bought the land as a personal retreat, opening it to the public in 1921, and created the Longwood Foundation for its future management. From there it grew.
Today, it is one of the finest, and largest, botanic gardens in the world.
A flower walk off the administration building is lined with seasonal displays; this opens out to other gardens other moods. One minute you’re waltzing through Paris, shaded by an allée of trees. Over a hedge is England, and a topiary fantasy. Over here, an immense Italian Water Garden with touches of Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s retreat. Wander farther and you enter a Wyeth painting, The Meadow, spiked with wildflowers and grasses. There’s nothing to be heard but songbirds and crickets and the soft rustle of breezed leaves.
There are also magnificent fountains, whole gardens of them, and light shows, and special events throughout the year, but especially at Christmas. Human food and watering are offered at three cafes, and there’s a picnic area if you pack your own.
It helps to visit on a Thursday, which we did. While I suppose there were plenty of visitors that day, they were swallowed by the immense space. Minutes go by without seeing another soul. Weekends, while still pleasurable, can get hectic.
The wonderful thing, said Baby, who played hooky with us for the day, is that there’s little here that’s out of reach.
If you’re a connoisseur of such, there are plenty of exotic plants to be seen, though in their most common form they’re familiar to even the most casual gardener (see: begonia). But the colors and textures are so artfully combined, enchantingly mixed, it’s a brilliant lesson in garden design that could entice even a beginner to get down in the dirt.
Longwood Gardens 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Open Sunday, Monday, Wednesday 10am–6pm; Thursday, Friday, Saturday 10am–10pm.
Closed Tuesdays. Ticket prices, click here.