Photo: Winterthur / Jen Rudy
The Voice of Many Gardens
The Philadelphia region has a rich tradition of public gardens, arboreta and historic landscapes. There are more than 30 gardens within 30 miles of Philadelphia than anywhere else in the country. In 1989, a consortium of Philadelphia-area gardens joined forces to promote their gardens and encourage visitation. That collaboration, one of the first of its kind in the country, is now Greater Philadelphia Gardens, whose member gardens attract more than two million visitors each year.
So much of the nation’s horticultural history is rooted in this region that it has been dubbed “the cradle of horticulture.” Today, Philadelphia has earned its place as ‘America’s Garden Capital’ with a surplus of public gardens offering a wide variety of horticultural display, and events, all year long.
A Brief History of Horticulture in the Area
A visit to the public gardens of the Philadelphia region is an opportunity to stroll through the history of American horticulture when William Penn first arrived on its eastern shores to lay claim to the hardwood forests of what he named Pennsylvania, or Penn’s Woods.
Although a handful of Europeans had already established a presence in this lush land that had long been home to the Lenni Lenape, many of the new settlers were Quakers, like Penn who established a home and large garden at Pennsury Manor on the Delaware River. The Quakers were intensely interested in the natural world as a way of understanding God, and their fascination with plants began a gardening tradition that prevailed for future generations.
Philadelphia’s John Bartram named ‘botanist to the king’
The story of gardening in the colonies could begin with Quaker farmer, John Bartram, who in 1728 established a botanic garden on the banks of the Schuylkill River in what is now southwest Philadelphia. John, and later his son William, dedicated much of their lives to the collection and study of native plants that they gathered from all over eastern North America. The Bartrams introduced more than 200 native plants into cultivation, and the seeds they sent to Europe helped bring the brilliant hues of North America’s autumn to the parks and gardens of England – a gift that is still celebrated today.
King George the 3rd named John Bartram “botanist to the king” for the American colonies in 1765, and George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin all visited his garden. Franklin was such a good friend that the Bartrams named the Franklinia alatamaha, for him, a lovely native tree they saved from extinction. It is now the signature plant of Bartram’s Garden, which is preserved today on its original site as the oldest living botanic garden in America.
Quakers lay the groundwork for many of today’s gardens
Quakers, with their deep attachment to Nature, established many of the extensive plantings that have since become public gardens in the Philadelphia area, such as Awbury Arboretum, once the home of shipping merchant Henry Cope; Tyler Arboretum, which encompasses the farm of Minshall and Jacob Painter, who planted about a thousand trees and shrubs in the mid-1800s; and Wyck, an historic house and garden that housed nine generations of a family involved in horticulture. Arboreta also thrive on the grounds of such Quaker colleges as Swarthmore and Haverford.
In 1910, Quaker educator Jane Bowne Haines acquired 71 acres of farmland on which to found the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, the first of its kind in the state. It is now part of Temple University Ambler, whose grounds officially became The Landscape Arboretum in 2000.
Once-Private Estates Embrace New Life as Public Gardens
The Quaker love of trees even led, indirectly, to the establishment of Longwood Gardens. Twin brothers Joshua and Samuel Peirce began planting an arboretum around their house near Kennett Square in 1798, which was in its prime by the 1880s. But by the turn of the 20th century, the property was deteriorating rapidly, until industrialist Pierre S. du Pont bought it in 1906 to save the trees. Du Pont set about creating a proliferation of gardens, fountains, water gardens, and conservatories that are now the foundation of Longwood Gardens, one of the most famous horticultural display gardens in the world.
Many gardens that were once-private estates help make the Philadelphia area gardens rich in diversity and beauty. They include Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, formerly the home of horticulturists and civic leaders John T. Morris and his sister Lydia. Morris Arboretum showcases some of the region’s oldest and largest trees on its 92 acres. Rare woody plants are also a feature of the Arboretum at the Barnes Foundation, once home to fabled art collector Albert C. Barnes and his wife, horticulturist Laura Barnes, who founded a school of horticulture that continues to this day. A unique collection of native plants is a major attraction at the Henry Foundation for Botanical Research, founded by intrepid plant explorer and respected field botanist Mary Gibson Henry.
This tradition of preserving private gardens for public use continues. Adolph Rosengarten Jr., the heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, took steps before he died in 1990 to make sure that his family estate, Chanticleer, would be enjoyed as open space by generations to come. In 1993, Chanticleer opened to the public as a 35-acre pleasure garden that quickly earned a national reputation for its interpretation of horticulture as theater.
The du Pont Influence Along the Brandywine
Estates established by du Pont families—descendants of Eleuthere Irenee duPont, who left France after the Revolution and began manufacturing gunpowder at a factory on the Brandywine Creek – are at the heart of the public gardens in the Brandywine area that runs from Chester County in Pennsylvania to Wilmington in Delaware. Not surprisingly, this region is also known as Chateau Country.
At Winterthur in Delaware, Henry Francis du Pont not only accumulated important collections of antiques and Americana, but created “a romantic vision of Nature’s beauty” in the magnificent grounds of the country estate. Not far away, Alfred I. duPont surrounded his 102-room Nemours mansion with hundreds of acres of formal gardens and natural woodlands, in the style of Versailles. And at Mt. Cuba, Lammot duPont Copeland, a cousin of Henry Francis du Pont, acquired one-time farmland to establish a mansion and formal gardens designed first by Thomas W. Sears and later by Marian Coffin, one of the first American women in landscape architecture.
Recognizing the Important Role of Native Plants
Mt. Cuba, however, became most famous for a later addition, a woodland wildflower garden beloved by Mrs. Copeland, who had a great appreciation for native plants and naturalistic gardening. This led to the establishment of the Mt. Cuba Center for the Study of Piedmont Flora; the entire property became the nonprofit Mt. Cuba Center after Mrs. Copeland died in 2001.
Another Brandywine garden—the conservancy surrounding the Brandywine River Museum in Chester County—also pays tribute to the importance of native plants, as does a 100-acre site of woods and meadows in Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, which has long been the home of Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve.
The Gardens Preserve Their Past But Look toward Future Generations
Since 1999 there has been a flourishing interest in gardens aimed at children, at places like Winterthur, Longwood, Tyler and Awbury. Other gardens have added or expanded programming designed for children. In innovative and challenging ways, they seek to engage young people, to connect them with the natural world and provide a counterbalance to the electronic playground that dominates today’s culture. Because today’s children are tomorrow’s gardeners.
The gardens mentioned here are just a sampling of the rich diversity in the Philadelphia region where there is so much to discover and explore. Aptly referred to as America’s Garden Capital, the Philadelphia area is arguably the richest center of horticulture in the United States. It’s a region that is proud of its history and committed to foster a love of gardens for generations to come.