You don’t have to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to see magnificent estates and grand gardens like those in Europe. Wilmington, Delaware, has a legacy of gardens and mansions that rival these. And they have one family to thank – the du Pont family.
Wilmington has five major garden estates all created by du Pont heirs. A good place to start a tour of these is where the du Pont’s began – at Hagley, the black powder mill (gunpowder) that gave rise to the family’s industrial power and the DuPont Company. (You’ll notice the family name uses “du” while the company uses “Du” in its name.)
Hagley Museum & Library in Wilmington
Sited on 235 acres along the scenic Brandywine Creek, the Hagley Museum & Library tells the story of E.I. du Pont. He started the powder mill in 1802 after emigrating from France with his father, brother and their families. The extensive complex includes restored stone buildings that once housed the gunpowder manufacturing process.
On the property is the first du Pont home and gardens in America – Eleutherian Mills. The Georgian-style house is filled with antiques and art from five generations of du Ponts who lived here. The gardens are a showcase of E.I. du Pont’s love of gardening and have been restored in a traditional French-style to the time of 1803-1834. E.I. was an avid botanist who imported many of his plants from France. He filled the square-shaped garden with flowers and edibles. One side is edged with apple trees in an espalier form. Other fruit trees are trained en quenouille, a French style of pruning that achieves a conical shape. Flowers and vegetables fill in the spaces throughout. The French influence is furthered with the use of parterres, espaliers and intersecting paths. Near the barn on the hill above the garden is a magnificent Osage orange tree over 300 years old.
The visitor’s center has three stories of local history. The largest collection of patent models in the country are on display here. Plan enough time at Hagley to soak in the history, watch the demonstrations and wander the grounds, which today are a certified wildlife habitat. Pick up a copy of the wildflower guide to help you explore. There is an organic café on site and a free bus to shuttle you to the various buildings and garden. If you have time, visit the library onsite that has over 1,000 corporate records of companies from Avon to the Pennsylvania Railroad. Special tours are available at Hagley by request.
Winterthur is the most extensive of the du Pont legacies. The estate started when E.I.’s daughter and husband purchased property from her father in 1837 and built a 12-room Greek Revival house. They named it Winterthur for the husband’s ancestral home in Switzerland. Future generations expanded the house and gardens, but it was Henry Francis du Pont (a great-grandson) who took it the level it is today. Under his guidance starting at the turn of the 20th century, the house grew to a 175-room, nine-story structure (the fifth floor is ground level with four levels below ground and five levels above) that he filled with his collection of American antiques. Make sure to schedule a timed-tour of the house (included in the admission price) when you first arrive at the visitor’s center.
Expanding on the du Pont family’s love of gardening, Henry (who studied horticulture at Harvard) transformed the grounds to include extensive flower gardens, greenhouses, and natural areas. Today, it is 60-acres of jaw-dropping beauty where everything is planted with a purpose, yet it looks like it has been there forever. Start your visit with the tram tour (part of the admission price) that takes you through the gardens and provides interesting stories about the property. You can walk this, but you will miss the commentary. The azaleas were brought here by plant hunters. The March Banks has millions of bulbs that bloom from late winter into spring. The magnolias were planted in the 1870s. The Pinetum is all conifers that offer a cool spot in summer. The dawn redwood tree just past the Pinetum was planted in 1951 and thought to be extinct at the time (but plant hunters found more in Asia.) The stories go on and on, as does the beauty of the gardens.
Don’t miss the reflecting pool and gardens at the bottom of the hillside below the house’s main level. These are not on the house tour or on the garden tram tour. To access these, go through the building housing the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens and then outside where you need to walk down a massive stone structure of steps and balustrades to the reflecting pool. Plant displays fill the hillside and colorful planters line the pool.
Winterthur has several dining opportunities and a museum store (where you can buy honey from the estate’s apiaries), a bookstore, the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens, and offers many special events throughout the year. You should plan to spend the day here as there is so much to see and enjoy indoors and outside in the gardens.
Longwood Gardens (actually in Pennsylvania, but closer to Wilmington) has been on my bucket list for years. It didn’t disappoint. It is breathtaking beyond words. It’s all about the gardens here, and you will hardly notice the home of Pierre S. du Pont (a great-grandson) who purchased the land in 1906. He laid out the first garden in 1907 – the 600-foot-long Flower Garden Walk that today is one of the most popular garden sections at Longwood. The flowers are displayed by color along the walkway, starting with purple and blue to pink and yellow and ending in white before you exit the garden into the woodland area.
Other gardens on the 1,000-acre property range from roses and peonies to wisteria, conifers, and an allée of catalpa trees. There is a dahlia trial garden, an idea garden, an edibles section, and a long fence covered by clematis of many varieties. The Italian Water Garden at the far end of the property is lined with European linden trees. The water display in the sunken area is patterned after one at the Villa Gamberaia near Florence, Italy, with great care by Mr. du Pont to keep the perspective symmetrical – the water pool farthest away is 14 feet longer than the closest pool assuring that these would all look the same length.
The Conservatory (constructed in 1919-1921) is room after room of tropical plants from around the world plus an interactive children’s garden all housed inside the four-acre structure. Outside in summer is the most amazing waterlily display with aquatic plants from across the globe. You literally could spend most of your time here.
The entertainment options at Longwood are extensive; organ concerts in the Conservatory, performances in the Open Air Theatre, music from the carillon, and local entertainment in the Beer Garden. The highlight entertainment is found at the Main Fountain Garden where dancing waters and music (with lights added in the evening performances) combine with technology and choreography to create an experience not found anywhere else in the world. Save time at the end for the gift shop, the nicest one in all of the gardens. Founder’s Weekend in July offers special behind the scenes opportunities at Longwood not available the rest of the year.
The Nemours Estate was created by Alfred I. du Pont (a great-grandson) and features a 77-room mansion patterned after Versailles in France that the recently divorced Alfred built for his second wife Alicia to win her heart (though this didn’t work.) When Alicia died he remarried an old family friend – Jessie – and they eventually moved to Florida where he invested in real estate.
The gardens Alfred developed include the largest formal French gardens in the U.S. and nearly 200-acres of woodlands and meadows. A sweeping lawn lined by Japanese cryptomeria, horse chestnut and pin oak trees leads you up the hillside punctuated by some of the grandest displays of reflecting pools, sunken gardens, fountains, marble structures, gilded statues, and plantings. You will think you are touring an estate of a European nobleman.
Entrance to the estate is via a shuttle that offers a narrated tour. You can hop on and off at select sites. The first stop is the Temple of Love with a bronze statue of Diana the Huntress. From here you can get back on the next shuttle or walk up the gently-slopping hill to the other structures: the Sunken Garden, the Colonnade, the Maze Garden and the Reflecting Pool. A pea gravel path connecting these is lined with boxwood and lavender, and is punctuated with small fountains. Urns of brightly colored annuals, marble benches for resting, and more fountains make the walk a pleasure in this park-like setting. The Carillon Bell Tower is where Mr. du Pont is buried along with Jessie and her brother. Make time to tour the mansion for its impressive collection of furnishings and artwork. From here, the shuttle takes you back to the visitors center, which has an impressive history timeline of the du Pont family.
Mt. Cuba Center
Mt. Cuba Center is the estate of Lammot du Pont Copeland (a great-great-grandson of E.I.) and his wife. In 1935, they built a Colonial Revival home high on a hill where an old cornfield once stood near the village of Mt. Cuba, just outside of Wilmington. They too loved gardens and hired the top landscape designers of the day, Thomas W. Sears and formal gardens designer Marian C. Coffin. Years later they added naturalistic gardens for woodland wildflowers. The result is stunning.
The focus of Mt. Cuba is native plants displayed in a variety of settings. Mrs. Copeland was the driving force behind Mt. Cuba, and she directed most of the developments in the garden. The formal garden near the house (which serves as the visitor center) is a mix of boxwood allées, low stone walls, brick walkways, towering magnolias and conifers, plus well-sited plants, both native and seasonal, laid out with the symmetry and geometry of a formal style around a main lawn. The adjacent south garden is filled with perennials along a brick pathway. The round garden has a fountain in place of the former swimming pool.
Mrs. Copeland’s cutting garden is now the trial garden where research is carried out on select cultivars of plants over a three-year time period. The results of these trials are then published and made available to the public. This garden also features an unusual lilac allée of French hybrids that bloom white to dark purple. From here, the gardens take a naturalistic turn as several paths wind through the woodland canopy and end at the bottom of the hill where four ponds await. Along the way, native plantings go 25 feet deep on both sides of the path and are filled with blooms; ferns, trilliums, dogwoods, spring ephemerals, asters, grasses, and other native perennials.
Daily tours are offered, but you can wander the grounds on your own. Check out the website for classes and festivals offered at Mt. Cuba Center.
WHEN YOU GO:
Wilmington’s renovated waterfront along the Christina River is lined with restaurants and entertainment venues.
At the far end is the DuPont Environmental Education Center, a four-story building with a panoramic vista of the marshland below. An elevated boardwalk offers up close views of the tidal pond tucked into the marshes. Here you will find wild rice, pickerel week, swamp milkweed, cattails, and many other native plants surrounding the pond. The center offers nature displays, interactive programs like netting in the marsh, and even canoe outings on the river.
Not far from downtown, Rockwood Museum & Park has a naturalistic garden in this country estate of Joseph Shipley, a Quaker merchant who built his home here between 1851-1854. The Delaware Shakespeare presents live theatre in the park here each summer.
The Delaware Center for Horticulture helps keep the state green by beautifying public landscapes across Delaware. Their headquarters in Wilmington has a lovely collection of plantings behind the building, and even one in the median in the roadway.
If you have time, plan to visit several charming towns near Wilmington. Less than 15 minutes south is New Castle, once a prime river trading town founded along the Delaware River by the Dutch in 1651. Row after row of brick buildings line the streets of this charming historic town. It was an early seat of Delaware government and important in U.S. independence; the town and area separated from England two weeks before the Declaration of Independence. Several buildings with lovely gardens include the Historic Dutch House and garden with its parterre design of boxwood, plus a cutting garden and pollinator garden. The 1738 Amstel House has a Charles Gillette designed garden added in the back in the 1930s. Typical of his designs, boxwood and brick walls are prominent. On the strand overlooking the Delaware River, is the George Read House. George Read II was the son of a Delaware signer of a the Declaration of Independence. The garden at the side of the house has a lovely mix of flowers planted inside this brick wall enclosed space. If you are up for exercise, the Wilmington to New Castle bike path connects the two towns. The 7.9-mile path takes about 15 minutes to ride, longer if you decide to walk it.
Farther away is historic Odessa, an 18th century enclave with five homes on display. While most of the gardens are in a stage of renovation, the town is a step back in time as you stroll the quiet streets here.
Check out more about Wilmington at VisitWilmingtonDE.com.