By Elaine Mills, Certified Master Gardener
Photos by Elaine Mills and Bob Kline
December is an ideal time to visit Longwood Gardens, the expansive botanical gardens located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, about 120 miles from Arlington. The principal attraction is the holiday horticultural display inside the Conservatory. This greenhouse structure, comprising 4.5 acres and 20 indoor gardens, annually features stunning arrangements of over 6,000 seasonal plants.
In the East Conservatory, lit by large glass windows and a glass ceiling, water features and dramatic plants in the permanent collection, such as queen palm, serve as the backdrop for lights-covered evergreen trees. Large trees decorated with flowers and ornaments carry through the year’s color scheme.
Smaller displays include interesting mixes of plants to suggest icicles, banks of snow, or snowflakes, such as this Winter theme with crown-of-thorns and icicles helichrysum and this Wintery white display of kalanchoe, bigleaf hydrangea ‘Hanabi’, and dusty miller, which suggests snowflake patterns.
The flooded sunken marble floor of the Exhibition Hall creates a beautiful reflective surface for showcasing arrangements of brilliant red poinsettias. Planters around the border of the pool include other winter favorites such as winterberry holly and Christmas rose hellebores. These seasonal offerings are framed by towering Australian tree ferns which are part of the permanent perimeter plantings.
The high-ceilinged Orangery continues the holiday display with additional Christmas trees (including some whimsical ones) interspersed with banks of flowering plants around manicured lawns. Cultivars of the poinsettia, the iconic Christmas flower, appear throughout the room in a wide variety of colors and bract patterns.
Variations of the poinsettia, the iconic flower of Christmas. Photo © 2015 Elaine Mills
Other garden rooms incorporate holiday themes in more subtle ways. For example, the silver-foliaged cactus and succulent plants in the Silver Garden are accented with strings of tiny lights. Winter-bearing fruit trees are also featured throughout the Conservatory.
Festive horticultural decorations continue outdoors with containers of evergreens and red twig dogwood placed at the entrances to various garden buildings. The Lookout Loft treehouse, built around two massive tulip poplar trees in Forest Walk, even has its own holiday tree decorated with cones from pines and hemlocks, wooden ornaments, and various seeds and pods. It’s also always worthwhile to spend time admiring the natural beauty of the nearby Meadow, even though it is not part of the holiday display. The Meadow’s tree silhouettes, dried seed stalks, and grasses show off especially well in the afternoon light of a winter day.
Finally, holiday visitors to Longwood Gardens are treated to evening displays of 500,000 outdoor lights wrapping both evergreen and deciduous trees. There are also fountain shows timed to holiday music in the Open Air Theatre. While shows of the newly-renovated fountains in the Main Fountain Garden only run through the end of October, heated plumbing below the theatre stage keeps these fountains functioning in all but the coldest temperatures.
See the Longwood Gardens website for details on the current year’s event:
NOTE: The photographs accompanying this article show Longwood Christmas displays from a trip made by the author and her husband in December 2015.