Longwood Gardens—Christmas in Flowers

Updated on December 7, 2018
Hanavee profile image

Brian Gray obtained his degree in Language from Lee University and has been a published author and professional writer since 1985.

One of the many trees inside the Conservatory at Longwood Gardens.  Every display uses natural flowers and plants.
One of the many trees inside the Conservatory at Longwood Gardens. Every display uses natural flowers and plants.

Thanksgiving was fast approaching, and my youngest sister and I were trying to come up with ideas for a different way to spend Thanksgiving day. With our schedules fully occupied the day before and the day after, we would need to pack in the best of the holiday in one day, so flying out of the area was out of the question. No exotic destinations for this one. We were near Longwood Gardens. Why not, we reasoned, go check out their Christmas display? It had been years since I had been to the famous Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and I knew that, if anybody could make the holidays cheery and vibrant, it would be the staff at Longwood Gardens. Due to the throngs that want to see the holiday displays there, timed tickets are required for entrance. We decided to meet at the gardens at 1:30 p.m.

The interior of the Canopy Cathedral Tree House at Longwood Gardens.
The interior of the Canopy Cathedral Tree House at Longwood Gardens.

It was a cold day, around freezing, and we weren’t sure the cold wouldn’t interfere with enjoying the experience, but after some hot chocolate at the café, we headed across the walkway into the Conservatory where so many exotic plants and flowers awaited. This place is famous for its variety of horticultural specimens. If you can grow it, Longwood has a better one. They simply cannot be beat, and for Christmas, this place was going to pull out all the stops to create colors of the season in arrangements that pull in tourist from around the world. Once through those doors, we entered another world.

Along the walkway inside the Conservatory.  Vibrant holiday colors are everywhere.
Along the walkway inside the Conservatory. Vibrant holiday colors are everywhere.

Longwood Gardens, for the uninitiated, is a botanical wonder created by its founder, Pierre du Pont, more than a century ago. Born in the same area as the gardens in 1870, Mr. du Pont loved the natural beauty of the surrounding hills and woodlands, and coming from a family steeped in gardening, what would follow over the years to come would be karmic.

This very tall tree looks even grander in the evening when the lights illuminate.
This very tall tree looks even grander in the evening when the lights illuminate.

Pierre du Pont was a world traveler, and was fascinated by the awe-inspiring architecture that he saw while attending some of the world’s fairs. He saw a huge display of water pumps at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and he was mesmerized by the illuminated fountains at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He never forgot the thrill of seeing those giant fountains of water. Years later, he would revisit those dreams in Longwood Gardens.

Pink poinsettias of a beautiful variety at Longwood.
Pink poinsettias of a beautiful variety at Longwood.

Mr. du Pont was influenced greatly during his extensive travels by the beauty he witnessed in such botanical exhibits as the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in South London and England’s Sydenham Crystal Palace. Villas in Italy and chateaux in France, as well as tropical settings in North and South America, impressed on him the value of intermingling architecture and horticulture with plant varieties of every sort.

Pale yellowish-green poinsettias, there is a color for everyone.
Pale yellowish-green poinsettias, there is a color for everyone.

Pierre du Pont was a very successful businessman, becoming one of the wealthiest men around, and he was a good steward of that wealth. He and his wife, Alice Belin du Pont (1872-1944), were very generous to the area schools, universities and hospitals. It was this generosity to their fellow human beings that led their desire to want the public to also enjoy what they were building at Longwood. It is worth noting that, making money was not his top passion, gardening was, and the world is a better place for his passion.

One of my favorite colors in the poinsettia family.
One of my favorite colors in the poinsettia family.

In 1906, at the age of 36, Pierre du Pont purchased the Peirce farm, and this would mark the beginning of Longwood Gardens. I think it is telling when one reads his own words from a letter he wrote: “I have recently experienced what I would formerly have diagnosed as an attack of insanity; that is, I have purchased a small farm. I expect to have a good deal of enjoyment in restoring its former condition and making it a place where I can entertain my friends.”

Every corner of the Conservatory is worked to maximize color and combinations.  There are no bare spots.
Every corner of the Conservatory is worked to maximize color and combinations. There are no bare spots.

He didn’t start out with the idea of building what is today a world-renowned attraction. His words to his friend said it all, yet one project after another came to mind, beginning first, in 1907, with his first garden, which was a six-hundred-foot long addition he called his “Flower Garden Walk.” It included a small pool of water and a jet fountain, the first of many more to come.

Sometimes, just peering from one room into the next is an Alice-In-Wonderland experience.
Sometimes, just peering from one room into the next is an Alice-In-Wonderland experience.

Some have asked where Pierre du Pont got the name for Longwood Gardens. There was, at that time, a meeting house in the vicinity named the Longwood Meeting House, built by the Progressive Friends, Quakers, who founded their religious order in May of 1853. The Progressive Friends were against slavery and for women’s rights, and legendary figures such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison and Susan B. Anthony visited this church. That little church is still there near the gates of Longwood Gardens.

At Longwood Gardens, there is a tree color for everyone.
At Longwood Gardens, there is a tree color for everyone.

By 1909, Pierre du Pont was so excited by his gardens, that he began hosting parties in the month of June, and these became so popular that the du Pont event became a major focus of society for summer events. In 1914, inspired by an outdoor theater he had visited in Siena, Italy, Pierre du Pont built an outdoor theater, and this theater still functions to this day. I have watched some very impressive stage shows at this very theater.

Yes, that is a real grapefruit hanging in the upper portion of this photo.
Yes, that is a real grapefruit hanging in the upper portion of this photo.

Mr. du Pont would continue to add to the entity that is now Longwood Gardens. In 1915, he married Alice Belin, and at that time, he had an addition built onto the original Peirce house which connected the old wing with the new. In this connecting addition, he created his first winter gardens and placed a marble fountain inside as a wedding gift to Alice.

Tourists are ubiquitous, cameras equally so, but with a little patience, you can wait and get a good photo.
Tourists are ubiquitous, cameras equally so, but with a little patience, you can wait and get a good photo.

This addition and its small conservatory gave Pierre du Pont an idea...go bigger. In 1921, he opened the huge, glass-covered Conservatory that is today possibly the main attraction at the gardens. Borrowing from his experiences visiting the world’s fairs, he incorporated the latest technology. Mr. du Pont did not want pipes distracting from the beauty of the plants, so he had tunnels built so that heating, watering and powering would be invisible.

This marble floor is usually kept under water for the ferns, but can be drained and used for special events.  For Christmas, hanging Christmas trees float overhead.
This marble floor is usually kept under water for the ferns, but can be drained and used for special events. For Christmas, hanging Christmas trees float overhead.

So much has changed since Pierre du Pont opened that grand Conservatory in 1921. Back then, he had a staff of just eight gardeners to oversee the indoor flower displays, eleven gardeners to take care of the outdoors areas, and three men to work the boilers. A gardener by the name of William Mullis was placed in charge of everyone. Compare that to 1,300 employees who work there today, not counting volunteers, and you can see that Mr. du Pont’s gardens have far exceeded anything he could have envisioned. Over the years since Mr. du Pont first began building this attraction, many people have come along and added their touches, but the greatest contributions were from Pierre du Pont.

In the famous Music Room, this giant Christmas tree actually rotates continuously, and is often accompanied by a giant music box.
In the famous Music Room, this giant Christmas tree actually rotates continuously, and is often accompanied by a giant music box.

In 1923, Mr. du Pont added the elegant Music Room. With walnut and damask paneled walls, teak floors and a beautiful fireplace, this room was originally built by Mr. du Pont for private entertaining, and he had his workers install an organ console and one of his two Steinway concert grand pianos that he had purchased from Steinway and Sons that same year. Mr. du Pont loved music and actually played the piano. He wanted to have the best piano available for when his friends came over and played, but even more so, for when he had visiting artists. The piano simply had to be the best, and that piano is still at Longwood Gardens.

The ornate fireplace in the Music Room.  The poinsettia lace around the mantel is actually composed of pages from books.  What creative people!
The ornate fireplace in the Music Room. The poinsettia lace around the mantel is actually composed of pages from books. What creative people!

Mr. du Pont wanted an even larger pipe organ, and the temperature changes in the area of the Music Room would not be conducive to keeping the organ in good working order, so, in 1929, he had the Ballroom built. At a cost of $122,700.00, which in today’s money would be an astounding sum, he had a much larger Aeolian organ built for the Ballroom in 1930. The organ was built in Garwood, New Jersey, and was created out of specifications that were given by the resident organist, Firmin Swinnen, who played there from 1923 until 1956. That massive organ contains over 10,000 pipes and is still in use today. The organ was rebuilt in 1959, but it underwent an eight-million-dollar, seven-year restoration that concluded when the restored organ was debuted on February 4, 2011. The Longwood Gardens organ is the largest residence organ in the world.

Even the Desert Room gets the Christmas treatment.
Even the Desert Room gets the Christmas treatment.

Pierre du Pont never forgot the excitement he felt as a child when he attended the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and saw those incredible fountain displays. Now that his Conservatory was completed, he began construction of the outdoor fountains that would thrill audiences for many decades to come. Inspired by the Villa Gamberaia near Florence, Italy, Mr. du Pont spent from 1925 to 1927 building the new outdoor fountains at Longwood. They had six-hundred jets in nine separate displays that shot out of six different pools. He also added a forty-foot tall jet fountain at the end of Peirce’s Park. He then enlarged the Open Air Theater and replaced the old fountains with seven-hundred and fifty illuminated jets. He added the Main Fountain Garden in front of the Conservatory that shot fountains of water using 10,000 gallons per minute and reached heights of 130 feet in the air, all while every color of the rainbow was reflected in them.

At night, Longwood Gardens will light up and become a wonderland of dazzling color.  Even though it was only late afternoon, this tree was already signaling what was to come.
At night, Longwood Gardens will light up and become a wonderland of dazzling color. Even though it was only late afternoon, this tree was already signaling what was to come.

By 2014, the original plumbing for the Main Fountain Garden had reached a critical point. The pumps were ancient and failing, many of the jets were clogged, and for more than two decades, a large number of the wall-mounted fountains were no longer operating. Longwood Gardens embarked on a $90 million, three-year, awe-inspiring restoration, and the fountains now reach heights of 175 feet. Modern special effects have been added that were not possible back in the days when these fountains were first conceived. An additional plus was the reopening of the south wall. It had been closed for twenty years. I remember walking on that wall, and it afforded such a great view of the East Conservatory. It is a welcome return.

One of my favorite vistas, it reminds me of a cafe in Italy.
One of my favorite vistas, it reminds me of a cafe in Italy.

When the Main Fountain Garden was completed, Mr. du Pont did not embark on any further major construction in the gardens. He did add the sixty-one-foot tall Chimes Tower in 1930. The original chimes to this tower were replaced in 1956 with an electronic carillon, and this was replaced with a 62-bell carillon in 1962 that was crafted in The Netherlands. Later, still in the 1930s, he added the analemmatic sundial that is in the Topiary Garden.

Du Pont orchids with a rich history.
Du Pont orchids with a rich history.

Now, about those famous orchids. One cannot miss the famous room filled with exotic orchids of every color and variety while wandering through the Conservatory and its many climates. Here is the interesting story of how it all began. The year was 1922, and a lady from Scranton, Pennsylvania, by the name of Mrs. Dimmick, made a gift of twelve Cattleya orchids to Mrs. Alice du Pont. Mrs. du Pont did not know how to take care of them, and they did not end up well, even though Mrs. du Pont and her husband were charter members of the American Orchid Society, founded in 1921. However, out of that experience, she decided that she wanted to know more about these beautiful, but delicate and temperamental, flowers. In 1924, Mrs. du Pont was elected to vice-president of the Society, and she served in that position until her death in 1944.

Rare orchids with even rarer colors from the du Pont estate.
Rare orchids with even rarer colors from the du Pont estate.

Mrs. du Pont eventually built a collection that was astounding. In 1948, four years after the death of Alice du Pont and three years before her own, Mrs. Ethel du Pont (1876-1951), wife of William K. du Pont, Pierre’s brother, donated her collection of 2,314 orchids to Longwood gardens. The horticulturist who worked for her at that time, and was responsible for these orchids, Bruce Scott, lent his expertise to Longwood, and in 1956, when the head orchid grower for Longwood, Louis Jacoby, passed away, Bruce Scott succeeded him and stayed on until he retired in 1962. In 2001, Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland, formerly Pamela Cunningham Copeland (May 5, 1906—January 25, 2001), donated her award-winning orchids from her Mt. Cuba estate in nearby Greenville, Delaware. The lovingly donated orchids of Longwood gardens will make you stop and ponder, especially when you consider all of this history.

Deep lavender orchids from the du Pont collection.
Deep lavender orchids from the du Pont collection.

When Mrs. Alice du Pont passed away in 1944, Pierre du Pont, now in his seventies, began to spend more time at his apartment in Wilmington, Delaware, and he would only come to Longwood on the weekends. He became very interested in history and family genealogy. However, he had always thought about preserving Longwood and what would happen to it when he passed away. Prescient in his thinking, Mr. Du Pont had incorporated Longwood as early as 1914, because the government had enacted personal income tax in 1913. In 1937, he created the Longwood Foundation to handle his charitable works. Still, Pierre du Pont had no children, and this had to give him some concern as to the future of Longwood Gardens, a du Pont family legacy. In 1946, the government gave approval for the Longwood Foundation to operate with an exempt status for the fact that the gardens would be used for the sole purposes of public education and enjoyment.

This tree is in a tropical room, and all of its ornaments are tropical fruits, seeds and flowers.
This tree is in a tropical room, and all of its ornaments are tropical fruits, seeds and flowers.

Before he passed away in 1954, to ensure the future of Longwood Gardens, Mr. du Pont had installed five of his nephews as trustees on the board of Longwood Foundation. They, in turn, selected a director, an experienced horticulturist by the name of Russell Seibert, and his directive was to turn Longwood Gardens into an internationally recognized horticultural experience. Attendance at Longwood Gardens is over one-million visitors per year. Longwood Gardens continue to amaze and inspire, and I can’t help but think that sometimes, on a moonlit night in summer, organ music is playing in that Ballroom, and somewhere among the orchids, Mr. and Mrs. du Pont, who both loved grand entertainment, are smiling and looking on.

Brian Gray

December 5, 2018

I love the reds and greens in this one.  It really reflects the holidays.
I love the reds and greens in this one. It really reflects the holidays.
The artists at Longwood Gardens know how to surround everything with just the right amount of color.
The artists at Longwood Gardens know how to surround everything with just the right amount of color.

Questions & Answers

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      • Guckenberger profile image

        Alexander James Guckenberger 

        4 days ago from Maryland, United States of America

        Brian, I really should visit. ^_^

      • Hanavee profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Gray 

        4 days ago from Pennsylvania

        Alexander James Guckenberger,

        Thank you very much for reading my latest article and taking the time to comment. I always appreciate hearing from my readers. I hope you treat yourself and go see Longwood Gardens for the Holidays. It is well worth the time and effort.

        Brian

      • Guckenberger profile image

        Alexander James Guckenberger 

        5 days ago from Maryland, United States of America

        So gorgeous. :D

      • Hanavee profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Gray 

        5 days ago from Pennsylvania

        R Talloni,

        Longwood Gardens is one of the most astounding places to visit. Regardless of the time of year, it will bring you a lot of joy. I hope you get to visit there soon.

        Thanks for reading my latest article,

        Brian

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        5 days ago from the short journey

        Thanks for sharing your visit to this beautiful place. It must have been amazing to see Christmas in the gardens. So many features to enjoy. I would love to see and hear the carillon one day.

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