March can be the cruelest month — especially for gardeners who spend the winter months thumbing through seed catalogues and longing to plunge their fingers into the soil of newly thawed ground.One great way to ease a growing case of garden fever is with a trip to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square. The former home of industrialist Pierre du Pont, in the Brandywine Valley region, is one of the premiere botanical gardens in the United States. Here, opulent architecture, sweeping grounds and technological marvels set the stage for more than 1,050 acres of spectacular gardens, woodlands and meadows filled with more than 11,000 varieties of plants. “He always had it in his mind that it would be a public showplace,” said Patricia Evans, communications manager for Longwood Gardens. Du Pont was deeply influenced by his travels to the great gardens of Italy and France, where he developed a strong sense of garden as theater.“What makes us unique is that we’re not a botanical garden that focuses on collecting,” Evans said. “The emphasis is on the aesthetic, so what you see are ordinary plants displayed in amazing ways.”Perhaps most amazing is the garden’s conservatory. With four and a half acres under glass, it’s the country’s largest. “What’s great is when you come here you can be surrounded by green grass and blooming flowers every day of the year,” Evans said.Today, more than 400 events, concerts, theater and seasonal festivals are held at Longwood Gardens. One of the most famous features is the fountain garden, which covers five acres and utilizes 380 fountainheads and spouts and jets that rise as high as 130 feet in the air.Three nights a week, from April through October, the Festival of Fountains comes alive with 674 colored lights set to music.Gathering rave reviews from visitors of all ages is Nature’s Castles, a new installation featuring three large-scale tree houses where visitors can play and explore. There’s also a children’s indoor garden with features such as the Secret Room that’s home to a drooling dragon, a grotto cave and a bamboo maze.The main conservatory, which houses 20 indoor gardens, is considered one of the world’s great greenhouse structures. Visitors enter the conservatory complex through the orangery, originally used to provide the du Pont family with fresh citrus fruits out of season. Today, the orangery features seasonally changing banks of flowers, shrubs and plants. The East Conservatory, built in 1927 and renovated a few years ago, features Mediterranean and sub-tropical plantings, such as siala, flame-tree, camellias and jasmine, chosen for texture, color and fragrance. It includes the ballroom, built in 1929 to accommodate the pipe organ du Pont had made for the property and features many luxurious touches, including a ceiling made of 1,104 panes of rose-colored etched glass.Other features of the East Conservatory include a 3,700-foot Indoor children’s garden, a lush garden path and Camellia House as well as Longwood Gardens’ famous pipe organ.The West Conservatory features one of the most popular exhibits, the orchid house. More than 3,200 types of orchids from Central and South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Himalayan and Andes Mountains, the Caribbean and South Pacific Islands are housed there, with 200 to 500 at peak bloom at any given time. Other highlights include the Tropical Terrace, banana trees, the richly scented Rose House and bonsai and a water lily gardens.As easy as it might be to lose yourself in the splendors of the conservatories, there’s plenty more to see.One of the major sights is the topiary garden, more than 50 types of evergreen shrubs trimmed into more than 20 geometric shapes. Nearby, the outdoor rose garden, dating back to 1930, is in fragrant bloom June to October, while near the Main Fountain Garden a planting of 70 pink, white and purple lilacs, blooming in early to mid May, creates a spectacular border to the garden path.Other features include a walled Theatre Garden, a peony garden and the 600-foot Flower Garden walk, where 175,000 tulips bloom every spring.Although it’s a Mecca for gardeners of all kinds, Evans said, Longwood Gardens offers something for everyone.“We get plenty of people who just want to get away from the cell phones and the hectic everyday rush,” she said. “And I have to say, to just reconnect with nature, there’s really no better place to get back to nature than Longwood Gardens.”
If you go
The hours that the gardens at Longwood Gardens are open to the public change with the season. They are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through the end of March, then from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from April 1 through May 22, with extended hours on some days during the summer and spring. Visit www.longwoodgardens.org for a year-round schedule.Tickets are $16 for adults, $14 for seniors age 62 and older and $6 for children age 5 to 22. Children under 4 are admitted free.The gardens are a bit less than a 3.5-hour drive from State College, most of which will be spent on U.S. Route 322 to Harrisburg, then the Pennsylvania Turnpike.Most of the attractions are accessible to people using wheelchairs.For more details, visit www.longwoodgardens.org.