Read Your Indulgence

Destinations: Longwood Gardens // Flower Power

December 5, 2016
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By Dane Steele Green

Flowers exist for one thing: sex. And now that I have your attention…
About an hour outside of Philadelphia is one of the great gardens the world has ever seen. The site took shape around 1783 when two brothers cordoned off a part of their farm to create a park of trees. In 1906, in swept industrial wunderkind Pierre S. du Pont, buying the whole thing and turning into “Longwood Gardens,” his summer estate (the du Ponts, don’t you know, were to the Mid-Atlantic what the Vanderbilts were to New York). Longwood Gardens is just one of several old du Pont estates finding new life as museums and botanical bliss-outs. None of them, however, are as flamboyantly into flowerporn as Longwood. In fact, the property now bills itself as “America’s premier display garden.”

Longwood comes in at a whopping 1,077 acres, with about five or so miles of pathways. About five of those acres are enshrined in the Conservatories, sumptuous indoor gardens that bloom and sprout year-round. Different parts of the property have decidedly different themes; du Pont was big into incorporating things he saw abroad into his personal Eden. Many of the water gardens were inspired by Italian villas, while the Main Fountain Garden is a direct descendant of Versailles. When du Pont passed away with instructions that the estate should be a museum of horticultural styles, his guarantors took off running, creating whole attractions dedicated to sustainable farming, tree houses, deserts, even an “Idea Garden” for budding green-thumbs.

You would think that things would be pretty quiet in the dead of winter, but not so! Come to Longwood and you’ll learn just how hardy some plants are; certain kinds of cabbages live right through the cold months, and did you know witch hazel begins blooming in December? This is in addition to winter mainstays like pine and holly. And then there are the cold-snubbing Conservatories, with more tropical specimens than Carmen Miranda’s haberdasher, and in whom the Christmas Display is just getting started.

Christmas, in fact, is one of Longwood’s busiest times, and it is full-blown flower now until January 8. The Longwood artists can really pull of miracles; the outside gardens are hosed down in lights, the inside gardens are a how-to on everything you can do with a Christmas tree and a handful of poinsettias. It is all very classy, and despite the overload of flowers, is not gaudy or overdone. It’s actually pretty elegant, and a perfect daytrip from the City of Brotherly Love.

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