Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A winter visit to the enchanted forest and magical greenhouses

On a whim yesterday, the first day of 2015, we decided to go to Longwood Gardens.  Spontaneity isn’t a typical characteristic of the Husic family, but after several days of catching up on movies and eating too much holiday bakery, getting out seemed like the thing to do on a day filled with brilliant blue skies and sunshine.  It had been over a decade since I had last visited this mecca for gardeners and horticulture enthusiasts.  And that trip was in midsummer – a scorching humid day in the 90’s.  I have always gone to admire the landscaping, the magnificent trees, and the wonderful tropical plants, especially the orchids.  But the history of this place also includes a real world Lorax, wood nymphs and perhaps a few garden fairies.

Liriodendron tulipifera - Tulip trees, often the tallest, straightest trees in the forests

The 1070+ acres that is now Longwood Gardens once belonged to William Penn (and Lenape Indians before that).  According to historical information that you find on the Longwood Gardens website and via Wikipedia, the land was purchased from Billy Penn in 1700 by a fellow Quaker, George Peirce, to serve as a working farm.  At the end of that century, twin brothers of the Peirce family began planting arboretum specimens to create Peirce’s Park.  This land has been open to the public since that time – a magnificent landscape within the charming Brandywine Valley that is filled with rich U.S. history, but also excessive urban sprawl.  Thus, the property is quite an oasis in the greater Philadelphia region.
By 1850, Peirce’s Park contained one of the finest collections of tree specimens in the country, many of which remain today.  What I didn’t know before yesterday is that Pierre S. du Pont purchased this property from the Peirce family in 1906 in order to save the trees from being cut and sold for lumber. The du Pont family is well known for its connection to the E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (and sadly now, also the wretched story of one of the heirs being told in the currently playing film Foxcatcher).  But I had never realized this aspect of conservation in the Longwood Garden story.  I am grateful that this MIT-trained chemist (and former president of the du Pont Company and General Motors) was willing to speak for the trees.

Can you imagine the lost of this magnificent Sugar Maple?
Acer saccharum - This tree is so large, I didn't even recognize it as a maple!
I can’t even imagine how old this tree is; the lower limbs alone where the size of mature trees, but growing horizontally.  I don’t know how a trunk can support these.  And we can only wonder at all that this giant has witnessed through time. I know that my friend Julie Zickefoose would be smitten with this beauty of a specimen.

But alas, I diverge.  Follow me now through a bit of our visit yesterday.

One of the reasons gardeners like to visit a place like Longwood is to gather new ideas for their own gardens – real or imagined.  One example from yesterday is this new-to-me Golden-twig Dogwood.
Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea' (the flav prefix means yellow)
Look at what this plant adds to a winter landscape:
These gardens at Longwood include tree houses and forest cathedrals.  I would love to have one of these for reading, bird watching, or simply escaping the busyness of life.

Can you imagine going to church in this sanctuary?
The view from this tree house is quite lovely, even in winter.
You aren’t truly alone in these tree houses, as they come with carved friends of the forest.  I wonder who thought to keep them warm with a scarf.
I wonder if you meet creatures like this if you go Into the Woods (a film I haven't yet seen)?
New since my last visit was the expansion of the gardens into the surrounding meadows filled with meandering paths and bridges.

As someone involved in native plant gardening and a restoration project that involves a grassland, these types of informal gardens that attract wildlife and serve all sorts of ecosystem functions are of great interest to me.  This meadow may look un-kept, but much thought and design and work went into this project.
I am thrilled with the conservation focus (perhaps in remembrance of why du Pont purchased this land in the first place) and important notes to the public on simple signage.

Julie Z.: if you read this, you must find out how to have your book featured and sold here.
Along the paths, there are areas to sit and reflect and perhaps paint.  I loved the corn-crib inspired sitting area dedicated to the birds.

Wouldn't you just love to have one of these at home?

There is another sitting area dedicated to pollinators.

Along one of the paths, you pass the old dairy farm:

...on the way to the restored Webb farmhouse.

One of my favorite things about Pennsylvania - old stone farmhouses!
Inside is an interesting gallery of information related to seasonal changes in nature, birds, and habitats.

We wound our way back along other meadow paths to the much more formal home of the du Pont family – with the dream conservatory connecting two parts of the home nicely decorated for the holidays. 
This amazing conservatory connects the original home to an addition.
I can only dream of having a greenhouse or sunroom like this!
There is something about old staircases and banisters that I love.
The lovely home is filled with historical information about not only the du Pont family, but also early botanists...

…including the Bartrams who also saved trees like the Franklinia.

If you don't know about the Bartram's, you should read up on their work.
I have never been to Bartram’s Gardens (about 30 miles east of Longwood), but am fascinated with the ways the father/son duo combined science, art, and horticulture.  I really must go sometime.

I hadn’t mentioned it yet, but a theme for this year’s holiday display at Longwood was birds; they show up in creative ways across the landscape and in the conservatories.  We saw a number of real species too, including White-crowned Sparrows and Carolina Chickadees which aren't commonly found on our farm. 
I like this holiday decoration!

Egg-laden wreath in the tree sanctuary
On a cold day and during the holidays, most people flock to the grand conservatory for the indoor gardens or floral sun parlors, the whimsical holiday displays, phenomenal plant specimens, and warmth.  I can’t imagine the cost of heating 20 indoor gardens within the 4.5 acres or 18,200 m2 of heated greenhouse space!

The crowds grew inside, but despite my tendency towards claustrophobia, it was worth it.
Fountains and poinsettias
Topiaries, giant palms, and Christmas trees!  
The last time I went to Longwood Gardens during the holidays was over two decades ago, but I still remember seeing more poinsettias than ever before – a breathtaking swash of red interspersed with deep tropical greens.  The look of the first main “room” this year was more subdued – a surreal winter scene, a study in white – filled with the heady scents of lilies and narcissus.
Here is where the enchantment comes in!

And of course, some birds

Paper whites
But the red poinsettias were there too....

…along with some that were the loveliest of shades of pink.  I only wish the pictures did these flowers justice.
Poinsettia with Kalanchoe

I didn’t take pictures of everything, nor can I share the entire experience, but will give some highlights below – beginning perhaps, with a most unexpected part of the conservatory:  the living walls in what is perhaps the most amazing restroom area anywhere!

The restroom corridor and living wall

A close-up of the wall
Behind the stainless doors
A water closet complete with skylight
and bird-themed holiday decorations
I love tropical plants.  One of my favorites is Heliconia (Bird of Paradise) – this one looking lovely against the burgundy colored foliage of another tropical beauty.

Bromeliads don’t typically come to mind when you say Christmas, but this one was decked out quite appropriately:

This one was not in Christmas hues, but incredibly striking nonetheless (again, the picture doesn't do the colors justice; they were almost neon).

One of my favorite garden rooms at Longwood is filled with orchids.  It was crowded yesterday, so I didn’t get too many pictures, but I dream of a room like this at home!  Not to mention the time and green thumb it would take to grow these plants like this.

Such a soft pleasant yellow
A wall of orchids!
More lovely shades of pink
A bearded wonder
A strange specimen
The birds were never far away:

Where did they get all those bird ornaments?

There was a peacock-themed formal dinner setting:
Doesn't your holiday table look like this?

If there are peacocks, then there must also be orchids

I love the color palette!
And decorative bird cages in hidden corners:
With poinsettias too!
Who would place penguins amongst cacti and succulents besides garden fairies?
There are even penguin ornaments on the tree - made from pine cones!
Was this a subliminal climate change message?  Or do the dancing nymphs, so favored by Pierre, return in the holiday season to do some decorating?  I have to wonder given the wreath made of spleenwort ferns (really?)...
Spleenwort and Kolanchoe wreath
... or one with succulents:
And there were many other whimsical garlands around the grounds.
Who has a tree house with such lovely holiday decorations?
Who else besides nymphs or fairies would create an entire Bonsai forest?

These are typically decades old
Or an incredible Bonsai Bald Cyprus?  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of this, but we saw  full size specimens outdoors – huge trees without their summer clothes, but with gnomes at their base.
Emerging from the various rooms was a final grand indoor display:

And then, it was time to head out to the light show in the outdoor gardens.  After this visual virtual tour of Longwood Gardens, if you don’t believe wood nymphs and garden fairies – living amongst the trees that Pierre du Pont saved – well then, I guess nothing can convince you.  Unless perhaps you visit this magical and enchanting place yourself.


 Happy 2015! 


  1. UNBELIEVABLE. Diane, I've been to Longwood Gardens, but I never stuck my nose out of the conservatories. Obviously, it was an incredibly rich experience (yes, the living wall by the bathrooms was almost my favorite part!) But now I MUST see that stone farmhouse, that sugar maple. Sharing this tour de force, this giant post made of fantastic. MWAH!! Gotta get back to Longwood Gardens!!

  2. Julie, I thought of you several times during the day. Perhaps it is because you have helped me look at things differently. It would be a riot to go together sometime!

  3. That was amazing! What a special place. I love the historical connections and appreciate the foresight of folks who protected trees and land in an era of "endless forest".

  4. Thanks! The conservation-focused foresight of the du Ponts was something I had not realized before. So much of this area was converted first to farmland, and more recently, to housing developments, strip malls, and corporate centers.
    I was also struck by the dichotomy of the du Pont name so often associated with the chemical industry and technology vs. this seemingly incompatible conservation ethic.

  5. I wonder why on Earth I never visited Longwood in the winter! This was so beautiful! Enchanted!

  6. And Mary, I was wondering why I had stayed away so long, in any season.

  7. Stunning. Thanks for sharing. I was so close but still couldn't get there over the Christmas holidays so these pictures are even more special.

  8. By writing this and going through my photos, I had the chance to relive the wonderful day. Glad you enjoyed the virtual visit Marilyn.

  9. Thank you for this, Diane (and you, Julie, for calling it to our attention). I have never been to Longwood but will now go as soon as I'm able! What a treasure, and what a pleasure to see it through your eyes.

  10. Excellent tour. Thank you.

  11. Thanks Bob. And someday, we will have to meet in person!

  12. That was a brilliant tour Diane. I had not heard of Longwood before, a bit out of my geographical reach perhaps, but thanks for sharing your day and this place. A lovely learning experience! Next best thing to being there.

  13. Thanks Stephen. An honor to share it with you.