Friday, 23 August 2013

Longwood Gardens: A Taste of Europe in the US

As lovely and rugged as Cornwall is, it lacks the 'wilderness' feel that you can experience in many parts of the US. I miss that unkempt lushness and always revel in it when I'm back in the States--particularly when I'm there during the summer. That is one of the reasons why Sasha and I literally took the scenic route--Skyline Drive--between Williamsburg and Montgomery Village. Even though it extended our commute by about two hours, it was lovely to see all the crags and trees and birds along the way. 

The view from Bacon Hollow Overlook
A male indigo bunting advertises/defends his territory
Given my fondness for these sorts of wilderness environments, I suppose it was a bit odd for me to suggest that Sasha and I stop at Longwood Gardens on our way to Philadelphia. After all, gardens tend to be rather cultivated--not to mention, we have our fair share of them here in Cornwall, so it's not as though I needed to go all the way to the US to spend time in one. Still, when I saw that the garden was listed as one of Philly's top ten attractions (despite being about 30 miles outside of town), I was intrigued. It wasn't far off our route, so why not give it a try?

Floral display near the entrance of Longwood Gardens
The gardens are open fairly late on summer evenings, so Sasha and I didn't have to worry about rushing even though we showed up around 4 PM. This was actually quite a nice time to go, because the crowds were relatively thin. The parking lot is huge, so I imagine the gardens can get fairly busy during peak tourist hours. Things were slow enough at the time of our arrival that we were able to park just a couple rows away from the gate.

Lily pads on the pond. There was also a green heron foraging on the bank, just out of frame to the left.
Entry prices are fairly high, but not National Aquarium high. Longwood has quite good deals if you become a member, which I think I would be tempted to do if I lived nearby. For someone who enjoys both plants and walking, the garden would be a great place to exercise; it's large enough to allow you to get in a pretty good hike, plus the terrain is forgiving and the scenery is pleasant.

The garden is located on land that was originally purchased from William Penn by the Peirce family, who went on to establish a large farm that persisted for approximately 200 years. Two of the Peirces created an arboretum on the site in 1798. The descendents of these trees were considered interesting and important enough to philanthropist Pierre du Pont that he purchased the land in 1906 in order to conserve both the plants and their habitat. He is also responsible for adding many of the more elaborate features that exist on the garden grounds today.

These include, but are not limited to, species-specific gardens (wisteria, rose, peony, etc.), a greenhouse, a waterfall, a meadow area, a woodland area, a little orchard and berry patch, and cafes and other man-made structures where you can get out of the sun and/or grab a bite to eat. At the time of our visit, one of these buildings was the headquarters for a wedding, and we caught glimpses of the party having their photographs taken amongst the foliage. Although I'm not really a white wedding type of gal (unless you're referring to the Billy Idol variety), even I can imagine that this would be a lovely place to have a ceremony and/or reception.

Sasha allowed me to take his photo outside the overrun walls of the Peirce-du-Pont House
One of the garden features that I was most anticipating was I the "Birdhouse Treehouse," but was a bit disappointed that there wasn't really much to see when we climbed to the top. There were, indeed, many birdhouses, but none of them seemed to be active during our visit; I suppose it was late in the season for that sort of thing. We could hear a few birds singing off in the distance, but there were no real opportunities for communing with wildlife. However, the house was full of binoculars and bird guides and even little listening stations where you could hear recordings of the various bird species that you are likely to observe. Assuming there are times when the boxes are occupied and the birds are a bit more visible, visitors would be well equipped to identify what they are seeing and hearing.

Treehouse offering a view of the forest and several birdboxes that had been hung therein
One of the things that Longwood Gardens is best known for is its selection of fountains. There is a main fountain section, an Italian water garden, a collection of fountains in the Open Air Theater, and various other fountains sprinkled around the grounds. We visited the garden during the Festival of Fountains, a time each year when the fountain jets are lit up in various colors and set to go off in time to music. As you might imagine, performances occur after sunset, so Sasha and I were long gone by the time this got started. Still, the garden is very pretty--though extremely well-groomed and "proper"--even without all the extra accoutrements. Sasha noted that the view made you feel as though you were standing somewhere in Europe rather than in the middle of Pennsylvania.

The two of us made a big loop around the outside of the garden, and one of the last major sights that we came to during our wanderings was the Chimes Tower and associated water features. The tower houses a 62-bell carillon, which was silent at the time of our visit. It overlooks a reservoir of water that flows down from the Eye of Water on the hilltop above.

The Chimes Tower, built in 1929 predominantly from stone unearthed on the land where the garden is found today.
The stream meandering away from the Eye of Water and down to the 50-foot waterfall that creates the reservoir at the foot of the Chimes Tower

The "Eye of Water" sounds like something out of a fantasy, but actually it is nothing exceptionally exciting. To be honest, I found it a bit weird. The photo of the Eye on the Gardens' website is much more attractive and appealing, and suggests that perhaps the feature is merely in need of an end-of-season wash. Still, there is something disturbing about the idea of a giant eye gushing water; it is more painful than poetic. I did, however, appreciate the pagoda-like structure in which it was housed.

The underwhelming Eye of Water
Once we finished our circumnavigation of the garden, I quickly popped into a little walled-off area we'd been unable to visit the first time around because of the wedding photos. I was able to snap a couple of my own pictures of the gigantic elephant's-ears that were growing there in pots:

The aptly-named elephant's-ear
By that point, we'd been walking for a little over an hour, and we figured it was time to get back on the road. (Plus, truth be told, it was uncomfortably warm and we were ready to return to the air conditioning.) I exited the garden via the gift shop so I could pick up some postcards and an unexpected little gift for one of my future foodie penpals. With those goodies in hand, we programmed our trusty sat-nav and began the final push towards Philly.

Longwood Gardens can be found at 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, PA, 19348.

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