Philadelphia and environs in full flower

Pennsylvania: Follow your green thumb to the many arboretums and public gardens in the state's southeastern corner and neighboring Delaware.

Short Hop

May 23, 1999|By Diane Daniel | Diane Daniel,Boston Globe

Maybe you didn't make it to the Philadelphia Flower Show, the world's largest indoor show, which was held a couple of months ago. But that doesn't mean you have to miss out on all the area's gardens. In Philadelphia and the surrounding countryside, visitors will find the largest concentration of public gardens and arboretums in North America -- more than 30.

From the manicured farmlands in Pennsylvania's Bucks and Chester counties to the wealthy suburban estates of Montgomery County and the fertile banks of the Brandywine River, towering trees, lush woody plants, and eye-popping blossoms color the landscape with an intense, natural beauty.

How did the Philadelphia area become such a prime garden spot? Much of the reason has to do with former Quaker farming communities and the weather -- rich soil and four full growing seasons. Furthermore, there was the wealth of such families as the du Ponts, who contributed much by way of plantings and philanthropy, encouraging private gardeners to make their land public in order to share information and inspiration.

The learning center of this world of green is Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, the official arboretum of the commonwealth. A must stop on a garden tour, the arboretum began in 1887 as Compton, the summer home of siblings John and Lydia Morris. The land they purchased, in the northwest corner of Philadelphia, was barren, but they turned it into a beautiful landscape for others to enjoy and learn from. It was their dream that the estate one day become an educational and research center devoted to horticulture and botany, which it has.

Because of its location in Philadelphia's historic Chestnut Hill, a charming neighborhood known for unique shops, restaurants and cafes, the arboretum is a perfect destination for a day trip or weekend getaway. A university garden since 1932, the 175-acre arboretum is a Victorian delight, complete with winding paths, unique areas of varying styles and streams running throughout the estate. It also contains thousands of rare woody plants and many of the city's oldest and largest trees. From ferns to flowers and medicinal plants, from seedlings to strapping trees, the arboretum contains more than 10,000 labeled plants. The more than 200 varieties of ferns are housed in the Fernery, built in 1899 and renovated in 1994. This main attraction features an arched glass roof and original cascade, grotto and bridge, and is a favorite of children. Kids also will delight in pumping water the old-fashioned way at the cozy Log Cabin and watching baby swans at the Swan Pond.

Longwood Gardens

If Morris Arboretum is the garden lover's Harvard, then Longwood Gardens is its Disney World. The world-famous Longwood, in the Brandywine area, 30 miles west of Philadelphia near Kennett Square, Pa., is the extraordinary creation of industrialist Pierre Samuel du Pont (1870-1954). A Quaker farming family first owned the land, which du Pont purchased in 1906 to save the trees on the land; the name, Longwood, is taken from the Quaker meetinghouse built in 1859 a few miles to the south.

This 1,050-acre horticultural showplace attracts more than 800,000 people a year, which means visitors should prepare for crowds on holidays and weekends. Longwood has one of the world's largest conservatories, 20 outdoor and 20 indoor gardens within four acres of greenhouses, a topiary garden and 11,000 types of plants. One of the most eye-catching displays is the Lily Display Garden, an outdoor aquatic display featuring tropical and hardy water lilies on giant platters, in bloom from July to October.

Another du Pont site is Hagley Museum and Library, in the Delaware section of the Brandywine River Valley. Although understandably overshadowed by its more prominent neighbors, this 240-acre site is home to a phenomenal ruin garden, which features exquisitely beautiful broken mosaics and crumbled columns. Hagley also maintains a formal French vegetable garden.

French gardens also are the highlight at Nemours, a re-creation of French chateau country. The 300-acre estate north of Wilmington was the residence of Alfred I. du Pont, and is a legacy of the French architectural and gardening traditions that were part of his heritage. The grounds include animal sculptures, fountains and sunken gardens. Colonnades, gates and figurines add to the architectural splendor.

Winterthur Museum

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