Longwood Gardens exhibit sniffs out role of plants in perfume

April 18, 2010|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

It makes perfect scents, if you will excuse the pun: a garden show that tells the story of the relationship between flowers and fragrance.

And that's exactly what Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., has unveiled this spring in the exhibition "Making Scents: The Art and Passion of Fragrance."

"Certainly there have been gardens designed to be fragrant gardens," said Paul Redman, Longwood's director. "But I don't think anyone has told the story of the relationship between the sense of smell and living things."

Scientists had been coming to Longwood for years to capture the fragrance of its flowers in devices that look kind of like oxygen masks and returning to their laboratories, where they would synthesize those fragrances and use them for everything from perfumes to cleaning supplies.

"They were doing it right under our noses, as it were," said Redman.

So an exhibition was designed that would tell that story — it took two years and more than $1 million to mount. Because the seasons play such an important role in fragrance, the exhibit will change with the seasons — from lilacs to lilies to lavender to lemon, just to name a few — until it closes in November.

"It hits the two pieces of Longwood," said Redman: "the science of horticulture and the artistry of horticulture."

Visitors who enter the gemlike conservatory on the 1,100-acre grounds will smell immediately the hundreds of fragrant lilies that surround an 18-foot-tall, wrought-iron trellis in the shape of a perfume bottle. More than 260 fragrant species have been added to Longwood's collection of 5,000 plants, and visitors will find many of those plants up higher — to be closer to their noses.

Visitors also will be able to create their own scent at a perfume organ; will learn the science of the sense of smell and the history of fragrance — from the embalming of the pharaohs to the glamorous link between fragrance and fashion created by Coco Chanel.

Dotting the exhibit are "scent canisters" — tubes where you can push a button and get a spray of a fragrance generated by a specific plant or flower. There is also a collection of 150 vintage perfume bottles on display.

And, for about $70, visitors can purchase 3 ounces of Always in Bloom, a lily-of-the-valley-based scent created especially for Longwood and this exhibit by Olivier Polge, the son of Jacques Polge, known as "the nose of Chanel."

Longwood will open its three greenhouses for the first time ever during the exhibition to help tell this story, including the work of scientists to restore fragrance to plants that have had the smell bred out of them. And there will be 10 stations for kids to learn about the role of flowers and plants, and smell, in their lives.

The exhibit is only a part of what attracts more than 850,000 visitors to Longwood each year. About 350 acres of the estate left by business giant Pierre S. du Pont are planted in extraordinary display gardens — 20 outdoor gardens and 20 indoor gardens.

Perhaps the most beautiful of these is the Flower Garden Walk, first installed by du Pont in 1907. The 600-foot path is planted on either side with 125,000 tulip bulbs in a color continuum that moves from violet to bright white.

Du Pont purchased the property to prevent the harvesting of an arboretum that had been growing there since the 1700s, one of the finest collections of trees in the United States. So as a tribute to the trees that were the impetus for the founding of Longwood Gardens, three extraordinary tree houses have been built in the woods that surround the formal gardens — each painstakingly constructed so as not to damage the giant trees or their root systems.

One of those tree houses provides a view of a managed meadow that blooms spectacularly in June but had rarely been seen by visitors to Longwood. Now it is among the most popular spots.

Also on the grounds is the du Pont home — two brick structures joined in the center by a very large conservatory — the first built by the founder.

At Longwood, visitors with a nose for history or beauty won't be disappointed.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/susanreimer

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