Seeds of Greatness: A Trip to Longwood Gardens, Philadelphia

The scion of an American dynasty went against his better judgment and ended up creating one of America’s greatest green spaces.


Pierre Samuel du Pont was a Type A kinda guy. President of the DuPont chemical giant, president of General Motors, inventor of smokeless gunpowder while still in his teens, and perhaps the age’s loudest advocate of land as a crappy investment. Which led to this 1906 letter to a friend:

“I have recently experienced what I would formerly have diagnosed as an attack of insanity, that is, I have purchased a small farm…,” he wrote. “As I have always considered the purchase of real estate a sign of mental derangement and have so proclaimed, I fear that my friends may be looking for permission to inquire into my condition.”

Long live the impulse buy! Because the farm du Pont christened Longwood Gardens is a case in point of what you can do with a flower, 1,077 acres, and limitless cash.

Pierre du Pont

Li’l Sprouts

I grew up outside the gates of Longwood. I went there so often, in fact, I had no idea the place was famed the world over as America’s premier display garden. In my 10-year-old brain, it was the Pretty-Flowers Place. I loved the carnivorous plants nook and got on all fours to look for soon-to-be-unfortunate ants until my mom read me the riot act for getting my good pants all scuffy.

As I got older, I noticed something else: Boy, is this place gay.

An hour southwest of Philadelphia, Longwood Gardens is like a club: No matter how straight it seems, there is always strong gay contingent. Unlike a club, at Longwood you also have the gay contingent’s kids.

Kids with coloring books in Longwood Gardens

Flower Power

Gay + travel = 21+. That’s the rule. The clubs, the parties, the cruises, even some of the hotels; just try bringing a child along. Alternatively, family-friendly, eco-friendly, and budget-friendly Longwood offers gobsmacking botanical razzle with judicious hi-tech dazzle to keep tree-huggers of all ages interested. And that certainly includes gays with their kids.

Open all year, the gardens embrace the seasons and any reason to throw a party. Spring heralds the Orchid Extravaganza, summer summons up the techno-fairyland of NightscapeChrysanthemum Festival, while winter revels in the Christmas Display. Sprinkled throughout are fountain shows, children’s reading days, theater performances, garden design courses, and lots and lots and lots of things you can do to a plant: growing one, pruning one, espaliering one, bonsai-ing one, grafting one, hybridizing one, cloning one, even putting a treehouse in one.

Canopy Cathedral Treehouse

The Forest for the Trees

Longwood Gardens became the declared summer estate of du Pont, but ironically, he had no intention of creating one. It all started because he was, very literally, a man who saw the forest for the trees.

Longwood’s history begins way back in 1738 when twin brothers Samuel and Joshua Peirce parceled off a 15-acre segment of their family farm for a collection of exotic trees. By 1850, “Peirce’s Park” was one of the foremost arboreta in the country and for locals one of the most popular getaways for a newfangled fad called a “picnic.” With the advent of the 20th century, however, both farm and trees fell into disregard and disrepair. Upon hearing that loggers were eyeing the arboretum, 36-year-old du Pont snapped up the property. Today, Peirce’s Park is the green, beating heart of the gardens.

Fall in Longwood Gardens. Photo credit: Larry Albee/Longwood Gardens

And once he signed the deed, it was off to the races. A consummate world traveler, when du Pont saw something abroad he liked, he incorporated it into Longwood. A trip to the Villa Gamberaia in Florence inspired the Italian Water Gardens, from the Villa Gori in Siena sprang the Open Air Theatre and its illuminated fountains. The Main Fountain Garden (currently under refurb) is a direct descendant of Versailles. Far from a copycat, du Pont himself designed the first garden on the estate, the Flower Garden Walk, and turned the old farmstead into a proper country manor complete with greenhouse.

Speaking of greenhouses…

Spend It In Style

Remember when I said du Pont was Type A? That’s like calling Google successful. It doesn’t capture just how gung-ho the man was for his pet project for the 50 years he decorated it. Outdoor gardens are all fine and good until the first frost. So he imported a jungle.

In 1919 he began Longwood’s most ambitious building project, the Conservatory (top photo; photo credit: Larry Albee/Longwood Gardens). Twenty indoor gardens with 5,500 types of plants, these four acres under glass are an arboreal punch in the face. Every sweeping chamber, cozy room, connecting hallway, and off-shooting alcove houses a biome alien to the southeastern Pennsylvania environment outside: The Silver Garden is Longwood’s desert, the Cascade Garden the rain forest, the Waterlily Display the delta.

Bulb display in Spring. Photo credit: Larry Albee/Longwood Gardens

It all comes to a head in the frenetic East Conservatory and elegant Orangery, each designed by du Pont to be a personal Eden, if Eden had roid rage. Pass their doors and you realize Longwood is the one place Martha Stewart would have an inferiority complex. Flowers of every size, shape and color pour from the ceiling even as they launch to it. You’ll have to call up a color wheel to get all the hues right, and if you thought an anthurium was suggestive, just wait till you see an aroid.

Although du Pont had no children, he always intended Longwood to embrace youngsters, and that idea lives on in the Indoor Children’s Garden. It is Longwood in miniature: The fountains and flowers are all there, but on a munchkin’s scale with a dash of Oz-like fantasy for color, including a smoking pool, maze, and radiant stained glass. Just outside the Conservatory is the Children’s Corner, a spring-to-fall attraction complete with a play-fountain where the kids can run themselves silly while the adults can take a breather (and eye the next-door Idea Garden, brimming with brainwaves for budding green thumbs).

Visions of Earth

Du Pont passed away in 1954, but ensured his gardens would live long after. Modern amenities such as the Terrace Restaurant were added, and Longwood continues to reinvent itself with new gardens and displays as if du Pont were still at the drafting table. Boardwalks now extend into the canopies of the forests to bring ecology up close, and Longwood spearheads sustainable agriculture and carbon-friendly designs.

And that letter wherein du Pont fretted over his lapse in buying the place? He added at the end: “However, I believe the purchase worth the risk, for my farm is a very pretty little place.”

Yeah, it is.

Longwood Gardens, 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, PA 19348; (610) 388-1000

 

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