During the course of my research for the Ireland articles, I discovered that we’d missed the opportunity to visit Ireland’s National Botanical Gardens. It was a bit of a revelation to me that such a thing would exist (and that there’s one in D.C. as well—more on that in the future, I’m sure), and my disappointment mounted. I know for a fact that botanical gardens are a love of mine because of my hometown’s proximity to Longwood Gardens.
Pierre DuPont acquired the gardens—then just a fifteen acre arboretum—in 1906 to preserve the collection of trees that the previous owners (the Pierce family) had failed to continue maintaining. He wanted to make it a nice place for his friends to hang out and wound up setting the foundation for one of the premier horticultural display gardens in the United States.
Situated just off US 1 in Kennett Square, PA, Longwood is enormously easy to find and boasts plenty of parking, so anyone from Philadelphia to Baltimore (or Harrisburg to Dover) could easily make it a day trip. A few nearby hotels expand the possibilities even further. But why put so much effort into seeing some plants? Trick question; there’s far more to see than simply plants (though there are thousands of fascinating plants). Beer and food lovers (including vegans) will find the concessions to their liking. Longwood always has a rotating stock of locally brewed beers that utilize ingredients grown within their gardens. Currently, they’re boasting a Cherry Oatmeal Stout (notes of chocolate follow a strong cherry headline), and the cherries were grown at Longwood. Victory Brewing is the culprit behind these brilliant beers, and they clearly know what they’re doing. My girlfriend’s vegan bratwurst turned out better than mine, which puts my confidence in the vegan burger through the roof. There’s non-vegan options, of course, though the BBQ hut smelled particularly tantalizing.
Children (both the inner and the outer kind) will also find themselves having plenty of fun: several elaborate tree houses are nestled around the grounds, each one totally unique. The main conservatory has a fountain garden designed specifically for children, though that’s not to say adults aren’t welcome, they just won’t fit in all the spaces. Speaking of fountains, Longwood’s other main claim to fame is their unbelievable fountain displays. Just outside the conservatory is the Main Fountain Garden, a five acre space which debuted in 1936 and was revamped from 2014-17. It’s a marvel that I could attempt to describe for you here, but words simply cannot do it justice. This video will begin to give you perspective, but you the only way to get the full effect is to see it for yourself.
Fountains aren’t the only ones putting on shows, either. Opened in 1914, Longwood’s open air theatre holds performances of all kinds (here’s a link to their performance schedule portal). They do orchestral concerts, touring Broadway casts, and much more. Their curtain doesn’t close, it rises: a line of small, powerful fountains shoot water ten feet into the air between the stage and the audience. As if that’s not enough, during the Christmas season (late November to early January), the fountains are all turned off and replaced with Christmas light displays. These aren’t your neighbor’s overcrowded, poorly themed displays, either. Professionally designed to enhance the gardens’ already cultivated beauty, lights are strung on natural trees, artificial Christmas trees made only of lights are erected, and garlands and holly are hung strategically. The conservatory is particularly festive, with decorated Christmas trees (naturally grown) and a couple special, incredibly intricate displays. This year, a floating forest of Christmas trees hangs above a reflective courtyard in the conservatory. Just next to it is an incredibly fancy, mansion-style sitting room done up for a library-themed Christmas. Garlands and wreaths made from books’ pages hang on the walls, books with pages folded into images sit on the shelves and much, much more. These particular displays are different every year, so you can be sure I’ll be back next year.
While it’s definitely beautiful, Longwood is more than just a pretty face. Their true missions are research, sustainability, and education. They have a tuition-free two-year school of horticulture, professional gardening training and opportunities, and offer scholarships and internships as well. There’s even student housing available! If any of that is too much commitment for you, however, they host lectures and workshops with only a few sessions. They also do online classes, for those of us who’d benefit from an entirely flexible schedule.
Even if you’re not a lover of plants, Longwood Gardens is worth visiting. It’s a marvel of engineering and spans almost three hundred years of history. Local beer, wine, and delicious food make staying easy, and if you don’t mind learning a bit, you’ll have no problem staying the whole day.