At Longwood, hidden fountains and a bench for whispering

Email|Print| Text size + By Anne and James Gordon
Globe Correspondents / August 14, 2005

KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. -- In Longwood Gardens, where smoke once drifted lazily skyward from the cooking fires of the local Lenni Lenape tribe, fountains now soar in a rainbow-tinted surge of liquid power. Overhead, starry showers billow outward from pyrotechnic explosions and float to earth like a million fireflies. The acrid smell of wood smoke and tangled vegetation has been replaced by the tropical fragrance of orchids.

In all, 11,000 plants grace Longwood, gardens reminiscent of those designed and nurtured for European royalty. Covering 1,050 acres, the site in the Brandywine Valley west of Philadelphia is a wonderful mix of meadow, woodland, outdoor gardens, an Open Air Theatre, the original Peirce home, and a massive conservatory containing 20 garden displays.

It was 300 years ago that William Penn sold 402 acres to George Peirce, a fellow Quaker, for 44 pounds. The American industrialist Pierre S. du Pont bought the property in 1906 for $15,500.

Du Pont was a man with a dream. With the acquisition of Longwood, that dream took form in the pleasure garden that would hold him in thrall for the rest of his life.

In addition to his being a brilliant landscape designer, du Pont's talents included the creation of fountain and firework displays of gargantuan proportions. With a childlike sense of mischief, he installed hidden fountains in his Open Air Theatre that spouted water without warning to soak the unsuspecting.

The du Ponts hailed from France, and their tradition of celebrating important family events with lavish firework displays naturally accompanied them to their new home in America. Fireworks manufactured at the du Pont gunpowder mills nearby were featured at the popular Longwood extravaganzas. They included the imaginatively named Nests of Fiery Cobras, Monster Glowworms, Prismatic Whirlwinds, Essence of Moonlight Bombs, Pyrotechnic Cuttlefish, and Sun Clusters.

On a recent visit, we took a tour led by Dave Thompson who, in his tenure at Longwood, has filled many roles: gardener and guide, topiary designer, and unofficial ''public relations guru," as he put it. He was knowledgeable about all aspects of Longwood, including my favorite, the Topiary Garden.

Dating to Roman times, topiary (the shaping of shrubs into specific shapes) is a garden art that found favor with the Italians, French, and British. The gardener of Emperor Augustus sculpted an entire fleet of sailing ships for his master. The Italians favored the Baroque style. The British developed their own eclectic collection of whatever took their fancy: corkscrews, crowns, doves, peacocks, pyramids.

In Longwood's French Topiary Garden, where geometric shapes are the norm, there resides a dog who started life as a chicken. This chicken refused to be contained within its given shape. After much pondering and some manipulation, Thompson and his crew added ears, then a tail. Success was sweet when a small boy soon after the transformation called excitedly to his friend, ''Wow, Joey! There's Snoopy and his doghouse," and the two rushed over for a closer inspection. Snoopy is there today and adds a jaunty touch to this otherwise formal garden.

As we stepped through the hedge into the quiet and empty Open Air Theatre that morning, a lively rendition of John Philip Sousa's ''Stars and Stripes Forever" struck up, filling the space with a crashing of cymbals, thunder of drums, and blast of trumpets. As if summoned by the great composer himself as an accompaniment to his stirring music, hundreds of fountains on the stage suddenly shot skyward, dancing in time with the music. Dubbed a ''Sousa spritzer" by the Longwood staff, the show lasted five minutes.

We encountered Mennonite ladies who were particularly interested in medicinal plants, seniors who wanted to relive romantic times with a photo under the rose arbor, and the Red Hat ladies who were just out for fun.

''Will I see myself on the Internet?" asked an extrovert in the group when I photographed her. Her huge red straw hat with overblown scarlet roses and a luxuriant purple plume waggled provocatively with each gesture.

It was hot and steamy on the patio in front of the Conservatory as the crowds gathered for a fountain show that would rival that of Versailles. For a brief interlude, and once again to the accompaniment of music, jets of water shot skyward, pulsated high, then low, arched, and flared.

In the Conservatory, which covers four acres, pitcher plants dined daintily on insects. Lilies, banana plants, proteas from South Africa, orchids, towering New Zealand tree ferns, and Japanese bonsai are just some of the plants that shelter here from frigid winters. In the Palm House, a gardener touched the new fronds emanating from the center of a cycad.

''This is my favorite," she said. ''These plants were here even before the dinosaurs. Imagine it."

A stroll along the Flower Garden Walk through beds of cool colors, then hot, culminated at the Whispering Bench, a semicircular 25-foot stone seat with elaborately carved armrests at each end.

''Try whispering into its back," Thompson suggested. We separated, one to each end of the bench. Leaning into the seat back, we covered our mouths. With its remarkable acoustics, we were able to converse in whispers.

In Peirce's Wood, the silence was broken by the yowling call of a catbird. Beneath a dense canopy of trees, a sea of pale green ferns carpeted the undergrowth. In a still glade, a wooden cross with ''Indian Hannah" inscribed along it is a memorial to the last member of the Lenni Lenapes to survive in this area. Peirce placed the cross here in the 1700s. Nearby, the gentle splash of fountains in the Italian Garden underscored a feeling of tranquillity.

Close to 1 million people visit this garden annually. It takes $40 million each year to finance its operation, part of which is provided by du Pont's foundation. His legacy of entertainment and horticultural education lives on for the people of Philadelphia and visitors from around the world.

Anne and James Gordon are freelance writers in Ontario.

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