Wilmington, Delaware, is a rather dull place, we are told, that sits in the shadow of its illustrious neighbor, Philadelphia, some 30 miles to the north.
Ah, but wee Wilmington, without so much as a big league sports franchise, is enjoying its moment on the world stage as its most famous son, President-elect Joe Biden, prepares his imminent move to Washington, D.C. This small city, population 72,000, in a little three-county state, is known for its chemical industry, banks and corporate registrations.
But how dreary this must be once the global spotlight follows the Biden camp south. Wilmington “has long wrestled with its image problem,” the New York Times wrote recently. “Namely, it does not have one.”
But the idea of Wilmington as a drab backwater will come as a shock to garden lovers who know the city and its surrounding countryside as home to one of the richest assortments of historic gardens and horticultural attractions in the United States.
These highly crafted places form part of a constellation of more than 30 fine public gardens in Greater Philadelphia, an array that makes Biden’s new (old) home of Washington a horticultural wasteland by comparison.
The great gardens in the immediate Wilmington area began as the retreats of the du Ponts, founders and descendants of the chemical company that put Wilmington on the map.
As a clan, the du Ponts were remarkably linked in their passion for horticulture and landscape architecture even if they went off in their own directions. Some of their creations were grandly formal, others far more natural, the rest a combination of the two.
As the creators aged and died, they established foundations to keep them going as public gardens. The most extensive of them, the 1,077-acre Longwood Gardens (just over the state line in Pennsylvania) draws approximately 1.5 million visitors in a non-pandemic year.
Its owner, Pierre du Pont, bought Longwood in 1906 initially to save a threatened woodland but by the 1930s had turned it into a pleasure garden for Wilmington society and local charitable organizations.
His house is modest compared with the estate’s garden elements, which included an ornate conservatory (which doubled as a concert hall), an Italian water garden and a 5-acre neoclassical series of terraces and fountains built to create a spectacle of lights and fountains technologically advanced in its day.
The Main Fountain Garden was restored and upgraded as part of a $90 million restoration program completed in 2017. Over the years, the conservatory has been expanded to house new botanical displays, and the attractions include an extensive outdoor display of water lilies and other aquatic plants. In 2014, an 86-acre Meadow Garden was added.
The holiday show, consisting of outdoor light displays and lavish seasonal plantings in the conservatory, runs until Jan 10. However, the conservatory is closed under current state pandemic restrictions, which may end Jan. 4. Entry to the show is by timed ticket.
Nearby in Delaware, Pierre du Pont’s nephew, Lammot Copeland, and his wife, Pamela, established an estate named after a nearby village, Mt. Cuba.
A formal lawn terrace leads off the red-brick Colonial Revival house, but Pamela Copeland looked more to nature in developing the grounds as a place to grow, display and study native flora. Since her death in 2001, Mt. Cuba Center has become a favored attraction for garden connoisseurs.
The woodland is marked by towering hardwoods, and the forest floor is full of shrubs and wildflowers that peak in the spring. The shaded paths lead down to a series of naturalistic ponds. An expansive hillside meadow of grasses and perennials helps to extend the garden’s interest into the fall. Mt. Cuba reopens for the season in April.
Just north of Wilmington, Winterthur was made famous by horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont for its extensive naturalistic gardens (with a formal terrace garden next to the mansion). The house contains displays of early American interiors, and the museum has one of the largest collections of American decorative art, along with a research library.
The 1,000-acre site became a canvas for du Pont to paint pastoral scenes with plants, and its wooded March Bank is famous for its extravagant displays of specialty spring bulbs in late winter and early spring. After its current holiday show, Winterthur will conduct winter weekend museum tours by timed ticket, and the grounds are open to members. It reopens for the season in March.
Located on 235 acres on the edge of Wilmington and along the Brandywine Creek, the Hagley Museum & Library is the site of the original du Pont gunpowder works, a workers’ community, and the estate and gardens of company founder E. I. du Pont. Near the house, he established a French-style potager defined by espaliered fruit trees.
The potager and large orchard have been recently revived, and the museum is in the early stages of restoring an extraordinary 7-acre garden created in the late 1920s to evoke a classical ruin. The powder mill takes visitors through a serene creekside woodland that shines in April and May. Hagley is open until Jan. 3 and then closes for the winter.
Nemours Estate was the creation of Alfred I. du Pont, who had a public falling out with his kin over control of the company and his somewhat messy personal life. With fitting hauteur, he built an imposing mansion overlooking a formal, Classical Revival garden of unbridled opulence.
The house, which was built in 1909 for his second wife, Alicia, draws architecturally from 18th century French chateaus, though it is full of the toys of a rich industrialist. Below the elegant ground-floor salons sits a lower level of unexpected delight – rooms for games, for making ice cream and for generating electricity.
The garden is absurdly grandiose, containing along its quarter-mile axis a reflecting pool that takes three days to fill, a topiary garden around a large statue gilded in gold leaf, a monumental colonnade and the 2-acre Sunken Gardens. It ends with the Temple of Love, containing a statue of Diana.
The quality of the garden’s design, its craftsmanship and materials all mitigate against any kitsch. On a bright spring day with the fountains gushing and the gilded statuary sparkling, you might feel you’re in the playground of a prince. It’s unlikely you’ll consider yourself in some backwater.
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