KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. -- The compact area around the Brandywine Valley in southeastern Pennsylvania is home to many good public gardens and a few great ones, thanks to the region's wealth of horticultural traditions and its long history of wealthy residents.
The big three are Longwood Gardens, begun here by Pierre du Pont 101 years ago; the Winterthur gardens and museum in nearby Delaware, the life's work of du Pont's cousin Henry Francis du Pont; and a sassy newcomer, Chanticleer in Wayne, once home to Adolph Rosengarten Jr., scion of a pharmaceutical fortune.
All three began as grand private estates and were permanently endowed by their proud owners as gardens open to the public. Yet they are surprisingly different in style and format. All three cover a lot of ground, however, so visitors should plan to spend the better part of a day at each, unless they enjoy speed touring or are training for the Boston Marathon.
Longwood Gardens is the country's premier horticultural display garden. It's a year-round destination, thanks to its four-acre Edwardian conservatory and Christmas show of lights. Its staff of 500 does an amazing job of keeping more than 1,000 acres of attraction s in top shape throughout the changing seasons. Longwood is like a theme park with a pedigree, but 100 times more labor-intensive since nothing here is made of plastic.
While the level of horticulture is superb, even visitors who can't tell a petunia from a potted palm will find much to enjoy. For example, Longwood takes water gardening to new heights with its large Italian water garden of fountains, a chimes tower with a 62-bell carillon atop a steep rock garden with a plunging waterfall, water lily displays behind the conservatory, and acres of fountains in front of it. On performance nights, these powerful jets of water dance to patriotic music over red, white, and blue lights with an old-time gusto that brings to mind the Boston Pops' July 4 performances on the Esplanade.
Longwood also has a large visitors center and gift shop and a comfortable modern restaurant where visitors can rest their feet while enjoying the views. A family destination, it is one of the most handicapped-accessible garden and greenhouse complexes anywhere, thanks to miles of gentle paved trails and a fleet of complimentary electric scooters that can build up surprising speed going downhill. A big new indoor children's garden is slated to open later this year.
The most spectacular outdoor gardens are to the right of the entrance, where flower borders of a grand scale centered around a series of fountains are planted with thousands of tulips in May, followed by an equal number of color- coordinated flowering annuals, perennials, and tropical plants in creative combinations through autumn. A series of more intimate hidden outdoor garden rooms includes one devoted to ancient wisteria vines that have been carefully trained into free standing trees that look like floral waterfalls in May.
Don't try this at home. It is almost impossible to achieve.
While Longwood is a great formal garden, Winterthur, just 14 miles down the road, is primarily a great museum of 17th - to 19th -century American decorative arts. Be sure to take a tour of the house, which has more than 200 rooms decorated with antique treasures. The majestic mansions of Newport, R.I., pale in comparison. But Henry Francis du Pont was also a gardener and there was a rivalry between the cousins. The story goes that Henry once passed a newly purchased giant tree being hauled down the road to Longwood and tried to pay the workers to deliver it to his estate instead.
Winterthur, which also boasts a striking visitors center, cafeteria, and enticing gift shops, has a more naturalistic and seasonal garden. The best time to visit is May, when the remarkable azalea woods are in bloom. A whimsical new children's garden with water- spouting mushroom statues, playhouse cottages, and a giant bird's nest, is one year-round attraction. Children's events at Winterthur are held on Tuesdays.
Winterthur once had its own train station and prize-winning dairy and still has its own fire station. All these buildings have been preserved. Take the tram ride for a tour of life on a great estate during the Gilded Age.
Chanticleer is the new kid on the block and much edgier. Open for only 14 years, it is still being discovered . And it is stunning. While Winterthur promotes scholarship and preservation, and Longwood has horticultural programs and idea gardens for the homeowner, the concept at Chanticleer is simply of a modern "pleasure garden" that delivers a refined sensual experience.
It lacks many of the amenities of the other two , such as gift shops, restaurants, or even trash cans. Instead, Chanticleer delivers a more intimate aesthetic experience for visitors who follow the loop of a single path where tableaux have been artfully arranged throughout 35 acres. These include whimsical sculptures, a pergola overseeing a stream, and a hilltop folly of a recently constructed "medieval ruin."
Rare plants abound, as do little visual jokes such as a garden shed with a plain exterior but an elaborate, painted interior. The point is to peek around the corners of this garden. I found a faux Native American campsite complete with arrowheads on an excursion off the main path. Even the new public restroom tucked in the Asian woods has wit. Framed in cypress, it is designed to suggest a Japanese home with Shoji screens.
The container plantings are outstanding, with bold combinations of unusual tropical plants. On Friday evenings from May to Labor Day, the garden stays open until 8 , when abstract light sculptures illuminate the gardens.
If you have extra time, many other nearby gardens beckon. It is a short drive from Chanticleer to northwest Philadelphia, where the Morris Arboretum's 92 acres of gardens, grottoes, and glasshouses are worth a wander. There is an elaborate miniature railroad garden for children, with replicas of historic houses from the region.
However, if you would rather visit real historic houses and their gardens, detour to nearby Highlands Mansion and Gardens, or Stenton (site of the first meeting of the Garden Club of America), or Wyck House, Museum and Garden, antique mansions that have retained much of their original landscapes and picturesque garden outbuildings. Nearby, the teaching gardens at the Landscape Arboretum of Temple University Ambler pioneered careers in horticulture for women. It has an outstanding formal perennial border.
If you are driving from Longwood to Winterthur, stop at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford and spend a few minutes in its serene wildflower garden on the winding river bank. If you have an extra hour, pay admission and tour this perfect little museum dedicated to the works of three generations of Wyeths, many of whose works are steeped in affection for this region's heritage as one of the country's first centers for farming and horticulture.
Carol Stocker, a freelance writer in Milton, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.