By Linda McK.Stewart
The answer is as close as Kennett Square, Pa., where Longwood Gardens from now through Jan. 6, throws wide its gates to welcome visitors to its glorious Christmas commemoration.
Spread out over 1,077 acres of rich, rolling Brandywine farm country, Longwood Gardens features some 74 trees festooned with more than half a million tiny, white lights. The trees turn mid-winter dusk into a magical landscape. Night strolling along lighted paths is a feast for the senses: cold air redolent with the smell of cedar and pine with damp, sleeping earth and the sure promise of hard cold yet to come.
Turn and head indoors, push open the heavy doors of the Conservatory to behold more than 4 acres of plant life, all in full, exuberant bloom. Best not to hurry. Just pause to treat yourself to a few deep breaths. The moist warm air is rich with the fragrance of amaryllis, lilies, begonias, cyclamen and hydrangea, all artfully arranged to highlight the Christmas display of poinsettias. Banked in rich array from pure white and palest of pinks to an extravagance of deep scarlet, botanically known as Euphorbia pulcherrima, the poinsettia is a relative newcomer to the Christmas scene. Time was when it grew exclusively in Mexico and parts of Central America. Then in 1825 Joel Roberts Poinsett, our first U.S. Minister to Mexico, and himself an amateur botanist, introduced the plant to like-minded American gardeners. It was an instant success, easy to cultivate and disease resistant. And come Christmas season nowhere is it more handsomely celebrated than at Longwood Gardens.
Christmas at Longwood is an annual event, attracting visitors from all over the country as witness the license plates in the parking area. In contrast to so many, too many, Christmas commemorations, a visit to Longwood is blessedly free of crowding, jostling, shoving. Admission is by timed ticket only, obtainable in advance. Strollers and wheelchairs are available at the entry.
As in every year past the display of individually decorated Christmas trees is a perennial favorite. More than two dozen trees offer a formidable challenge to every householder who aspires to achieve comparable results on their own home turf! A special treat for children is the miniature train that toots and puffs its way through a miniature landscape of tiny trees, shrubs, farmyards and villages.
Longwood Gardens, just 30 miles west of Philadelphia was once the country estate of Pierre S. du Pont, the great-grandson of Eleuthère Irénenée du Pont, founder of the Du Pont Company. (Yes, it’s small du for family and capital Du for the company though why, I cannot say.) The original property, purchased by Pierre du Pont in 1906 consisted of 202 acres, soon expanded to over 1,000 acres. Pierre and his wife Alice traveled tirelessly in Europe, always with an eye for concepts that could be replicated at Longwood. The couple was childless and adamant that the estate should eventually become accessible to the public. Today the entire property is managed by a nonprofit foundation, handsomely endowed and dedicated to progressive horticultural research and management.
The Terrace Restaurant Café is open every day. So is the Garden Gift Shop, one of the best places you could ever find in which to melt down your credit card in less time than it takes to say “Merry Christmas!”
IF YOU GO: For details call 610-388-1000; for tickets call 866-625-4586.