Inside Longwood Gardens, a Dreamscape of Old-World Architecture and Kaleidoscopic Blooms
Two visitors are causing quite a stir at Longwood Gardens. While over 1.5 million people flock to this Chester County, Pennsylvania, institution each year (more than any other public garden in America), these newcomers validate Longwood's recent major push to blend conservation with innovation. Flitting above the 86-acre Meadow Garden, a pair of rarely seen birds have been spotted: the yellow-breasted chat, a songbird threatened by habitat decline; and the clay-colored arrow, a Great Plains dweller.
The meadow, a sea of grasses, perennials, and native self-seeders, is more than an endangered-chick magnet. It's a humming field where bipeds can immerse themselves in a landscape that's both expansive and intimate. As you walk the paths, you can see the undulations of the larger terrain, then turn and zoom in on pollinator bees working their way through fragrant swaths of joe-pye weed and goldenrod, sunflowers and ironweed. You're in it and you're of it, and you can just begin to imagine what the region looked like to its indigenous inhabitants, the Lenni-Lenape.
A testing ground for new theories on sustainability and biodiversity, the meadow also carries forward the spirit and preservationist instincts of Longwood's founder, Pierre S. du Pont. An industrialist and engineer whose great-grandfather founded the DuPont chemical company, du Pont first bought a 202-acre farm in 1906 to save the unusual collection of trees its previous owners had planted, including wild tulip, cucumber magnolia, and Kentucky coffee (some of which still thrive today). Over the next half-century, he purchased 25 adjacent properties, until the garden had grown almost five times in size (an additional 174 acres were added after his death). With each expansion came an opportunity to indulge another personal passion: A perennial walk! A brass-mullioned glass conservatory with a 10,000-pipe organ inside! An open-air theater! Not to mention the allées and orchards and fountain gardens embellished with intricate limestone carvings, as well as the exuberant use of boxwood, which du Pont bought not by the plant but by the linear foot.
Today, an army of staff, students, and volunteers keeps Longwood's 40 distinct gardens in immaculate condition. Concerts and art shows complement a robust schedule of garden festivals and classes. The place is also famous for its Vegas-worthy fountain shows, in which thousands of jets shoot water 175 feet into the air, synchronized with lights, music, and the occasional fireworks display.
There are quieter thrills to be found, too: You can forest-bathe along shaded trails, surrounded by woodland natives and cooled by a canopy of some of the oldest dawn redwoods in North America. You can pause, if you like, at the Love Temple in Peirce's Woods, a lakeside folly standing among sweet bay magnolias, whose lemon-scented blooms are the original aromatherapy. Or you might find brilliant solutions to your own backyard quandaries at the Idea Garden, where new plants and combinations are introduced every year. But at this moment, back at the meadow, there's a new flurry of activity. A few paw prints have everyone on the lookout, says Matt Taylor, director of research and conservation. "We think we have a mink."
Flower Garden Walk
Longwood's Flower Garden Walk was designed in 1907 by founder Pierre S. du Pont. Its 600-foot brick straightaway is edged with borders he divided into distinct color schemes. Last year, resident horticulturalist April Bevans peppered in a series of chartreuse plantings, including Gomphrena 'Cosmic Flare', Coleus 'Wasabi', Agastache 'Golden Jubilee', Talinum 'Limon', and Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious', to create a visual through line that echoes the two yellow-green arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis 'Semperaurea') du Pont planted in the 1920s.
The Love Temple in Peirce's Woods is tucked among Christmas ferns, native irises, and white mophead hydrangeas.
Longwood's own hybrid version of a giant water platter, Victoria 'Longwood Hybrid', unfurls its round leaves at a rate of six to seven inches per day, eventually reaching five feet in diameter; its flowers last only two days, opening up creamy white on the first night and pink on the second.
The Water Garden
Britain's Peter Shepheard led the redesign of the water garden in 1989.
The Fountain Garden
In the Main Fountain Garden, deteriorated boxwood hedges have been replaced with thousands of 'Green Beauty', a more blight-resistant Japanese cultivar.
The sunken Square Fountain Garden showcases playful, contrasting purple and chartreuse color schemes.
A northern mockingbird rests on a Meadow Garden bluebird box; its drought-tolerant green roof is a habitat for tasty insects.
Profusely blooming purple coneflower is a garden stalwart and pollinator attractor.
Longwood's annual Chrysanthemum Festival features the garden's collection of rare Japanese and Chinese cultivars, which are grown in test tubes and housed in food-grade refrigerators to protect them from greenhouse insects and disease.
The Idea Garden is a teaching tool for students in Longwood's education program, and home to what outdoor-landscapes director Andrea Brunsendorf calls "bulletproof plants," such as purple Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia 'CrazyBlue'), red 'Johnny Reb' daylily, and the upright clumping feather reed grass (Calama- grostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'). Self-seeding fillers include hot-pink Persicaria orientalis and a snappy-orange Cosmos sulphureus.