Near Wilmington, millions of flowers and miles of paths

Longwood, Winterthur have tours and programs

Trips: road trips, regional events

May 20, 2004|By Natasha Lesser | Natasha Lesser,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Flowers, flowers, and more flowers (plus lots of trees, plants and grass) -- that's what you'll find at Longwood Gardens and Winterthur, two enormous and elaborate gardens just outside Wilmington, Del. Between the two, there are millions of flowers and plants, and miles of paths, lawns and groves.

The gardens, which are 90 minutes north of Baltimore, were once estates in the du Pont family, owned by men who loved gardening and spent decades -- and lots of money -- creating their leafy masterpieces. Both spots are open to the public and offer a great way to escape the heat and concrete of Baltimore.

Longwood Gardens

Once the estate of chemical magnate Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954), the 1,050-acre Longwood Gardens is a majestic place. It's a series of gardens, woodlands and an enormous conservatory, all open for exploration.

Du Pont was influenced by his travels through Europe and tried to replicate the carefully laid-out gardens and grand fountains he saw there. But the gardens also have a uniquely American vitality, and Longwood doesn't feel stodgy, even though the gardens are formal in design.

Du Pont constantly tinkered with his gardens, and today's gardeners have continued that tradition. Displays are updated and changed every season and every year. This spring, for instance, gardeners planted 100,000 tulip bulbs along the 600-foot main walk, creating an impressive wave of bright colors stretching the length of two football fields.

The gardens began in 1906, when du Pont bought the estate from the Peirces, an old Quaker family. Over several decades he transformed the grounds, doing most of the planning and engineering himself. He wanted his creation to dazzle, says Longwood horticulturist Julie Lo, a goal shared by the current gardeners: "Our inspiration always comes from du Pont's original intent to entertain."

But don't be intimidated by all the fancy flowers: Longwood is a great place to simply hang out. You can go for the day and have lunch at the Terrace Restaurant or have a picnic in the picnic grove just outside the main gates.

And Longwood offers more than just plants. Du Pont loved fountains, and Longwood is filled with them, many modeled after those he saw on his European travels. The fountain in front of the Open Air Theatre creates a curtain of water between acts. Others are built into the stage and create a kind of rhythmic dance of water.

The 380 fountains and spouts of the Main Fountain create displays throughout the summer. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights, the garden's fountains are on full display, with lights and music. On July 4, July 23, Aug. 20 and Sept. 11, the fountain shows include fireworks (shows often sell out, so get tickets in advance). Also on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings in summer, Longwood is host to concerts -- as varied as bluegrass and classical -- on the Open Air Theatre stage.

Longwood also offers help for weekend gardeners. The Idea Garden is full of unusual plants that can be grown in your back yard. Next to that is a children's garden, with plants arranged from A to Z, a small wooden house with just kid-sized tables and chairs, and a maze inspired by honeycombs.

Walking tours of Longwood are available, as are gardening demonstrations and daylong workshops. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. Wheelchairs and electric scooters are available for those who need them.

Winterthur

About 10 minutes away is the 982-acre Winterthur estate, which was created by Pierre's cousin, Henry F. du Pont (1880-1969). Here, you'll find not only a stunning landscape, but also a huge collection of early American antiques.

Henry liked the natural look, so he planted the hillside, meadows and forests around his estate to look as if they had grown there on their own. Yet he planned his gardens meticulously. Flowers and trees were arranged in masses of color and artful combinations, with blooming orchestrated from January to November.

You can walk around the garden to Azalea Glen, Peony Garden and Pinetum. Or you can take the tram, a half-hour ride around the grounds, with stops along the way to get off and walk.

Winterthur also has a large collection of colonial and early-American antiques. Du Pont wanted to show the world that America had its own artistic tradition, and his mansion, now a museum, is filled with room after room of items made or used in America from 1640 to 1860, including a set of china that once belonged to George Washington. Check out the "Baltimore Room," which has furniture made two centuries ago in Baltimore in the Federal style.

Activities for children include the Enchanted Woods, a children's garden that offers a troll bridge and a fairy cottage; and "Terrific Tuesdays," five hours of crafts, storytelling and nature for ages 4 to 8.

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