The state of Pennsylvania in the USA is a treasure trove for horticulturists. With 30 public gardens within about an hour of the capital Philadelphia, it’s hard to know which one to visit first. Its claim of “more gardens than anywhere on the continent” seemed pretty apt as I travelled around enjoying the lush beauty of America’s garden state.

The rear of the conservatory at Longwood Gardens
The rear of the conservatory at Longwood Gardens

I was lucky enough to attend the 2nd International Trials Conference. Attracting around 120 delegates from all over the world, it was great to see the room buzzing with self confessed ‘plant-geeks’ all chatting about the merits of the plant trial process (more about that another time). The first conference was held in 2011 at Wisely Gardens in the UK, and this time around it was the team at Longwood Gardens who did a fantastic job of hosting the event. However, with such a spectacular location, they would be hard pressed to do any wrong.

Longwood Gardens is renowned for its history, beauty and sheer ‘wow’. It’s had many custodians over the years with an arboretum first planted in 1798. By 1850 this boasted one of the finest collections of trees in the country. However in 1906 the gardens were purchased by Pierre du Pont who set about transforming them little by little into a truly magnificent display. Pierre Du Pont was a visionary to say the least and spent much of his life developing the gardens into what we can enjoy today.

There are acres and acres to explore at Longwood, and it’s hard to know where to go first – with a budget of nearly $50 million and a staff of 1300 employees, students and volunteers you can get an idea of the scale. The conservatory is nothing short of extraordinary and guaranteed to blow your mind. Built between 1919 and 1921 it consists of a series of huge display atriums teaming with immaculate displays. The planning and foresight that went into this building nearly 100 years ago is amazing. If it were built today it would still be jaw dropping. It was originally filled with citrus trees so that the Du Pont family could enjoy oranges on hand for many months of the year.

I loved the style and aura of the conservatory. It retains its old world charm with arched windows and period styling. There are a lot of French and Italian design elements. Wandering through its cavernous interior is like exploring. The displays are ever changing and I’m told that a visit at Christmas time is simply a must.

Stunning display inside the conservatory with humidifying water. Longwood Gardens
Stunning display inside the conservatory with humidifying water. Longwood Gardens

Deeper inside the conservatory, the fern collection sits on a huge floor filled with a few inches of water both to aid in creating optimum humidity and to act as a mirror, reflecting the plants beauty around the room (great thinking in itself). For special events, such as the conference dinner, they drain the water away, dry the floor and wheel the ferns in their huge containers to the side of the room – a process that takes about 24 hours. Following that, staff set up dinner tables on the fern floor and create an event that is hard to beat. Amidst one of the worlds great conservatories you can sit and be waited on the very same way that society’s elite was years ago. It would be hard to host a dinner party for a bunch of horticulturists that would ever top this setting!

Longwood Gardens fountains
Longwood Gardens fountains

Du Pont was fascinated with water and this is reflected right throughout the gardens. He travelled extensively and bought back inspiration from European gardens. Singlehandedly he designed the gardens superb water features. Standing on the terrace overlooking the manicured garden you can regularly witness stunning water shows. Each fountain can be individually controlled. It is hard to describe the scene – and photos simply do not do it justice. All I can say is you have to add it to your bucket list!

As part of the conference we were treated to a private fountain show one evening. The fountain display was set to music and lit in various colours as well. It was surreal to stand and watch it unfold and think that it has been operating since 1931 and still blowing people away. It’s lovely to see the old photographs of ladies dressed in their finery, parasols in hand, enjoying the displays in the 1930s. The fountain garden recirculates 10,000 gallons of water a minute (that’s 38,000 litres) and includes a jet that reaches over 130 feet (40m) in height.

A sample of the water fountains at Longwood Gardens
A sample of the water fountains at Longwood Gardens

It’s hard to do justice to this garden due to its sheer size alone. An ornate Italian water garden, rolling meadow, lake, parklands, woodlands, topiaries, vegetable garden, trial gardens… the list could go on. It’s all stunning and there’s something to look at at every turn. Areas of Du Pont’s house are also open to the public and interesting to explore in themselves.

If you’re planning a visit, my advice is to allow plenty of time. You can easily lose a couple of days in here. It’s huge, it’s great, there are plenty of nooks to sit and relax and no shortage of areas for kids to explore – try a zillion acres! Access is good with relatively flat paths, and the staff are very accommodating with carts and buses to ferry you around if need be.

Check out the program at Longwood Gardens before you go. If you can tie your visit in with an event such as Christmas or the Chrysanthemum Festival I hear you will be well rewarded too. There are frequently events on, including workshops, talks, and cultural events making good use of the open air theatre.