A date with America’s Garden Capital

/ New Delhi
A date with America’s Garden Capital

Philadelphia is dotted with numerous gardens like Longwood Gardens (featured above) that bear testimony to US history Photo: Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB)

For those who have always associated history with museums, forts and monuments, Philadelphia throws up a surprise. In the rolling gardens dotting its countryside lies both incredible beauty and an important slice of American history.
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When I first set foot in Philadelphia, I knew vaguely about its role in the founding of the United States of America, but had absolutely no idea that the countryside here was home to about 30 sprawling gardens that have earned it the sobriquet “America’s Garden Capital.” I soon found that these gardens, lying within 50 km of Philly, as the locals call the city, are not just counted among the world’s best horticultural spaces, but are also rooted in American history and reveal a facet of the US that not many may have experienced.

After spending three days in the beautiful and historic city of Philadelphia, I, along with a group of four others, headed out to explore the gardens spread over thousands of acres. Our first encounter was with the Valley Forge National Historical Park, where we reached after a hearty lunch at the Founding Farmers Restaurant. About 30 km from Philadelphia’s city centre, the drive to Valley Forge was really breathtaking.

Photo: (PHLCVB)

Fountains at Longwood Gardens are a major draw for visitors Photo: (PHLCVB)

Valley Forge National Historical Park

This is no ordinary park, with monuments, meadows and woodlands, that meander over an incredible 3,500 acres. The best way to go around and understand its history is to take the trolley tour. But before doing that, we decided to spend about 30 minutes walking around the place. From the visitor centre, we went up to a point called Muhlenberg Brigade where we spotted some wooden log huts but did not understand their significance until later. Sitting on a bench in the manicured garden, I just spent time gazing at the rolling greens around me and letting go of all my worries. Little did I know that very soon I would get to learn about how historical this place is.

The 90-minute trolley tour starts from the Visitor Centre and takes one to all the important historical spots. As soon as we stepped in, our guide told us that Valley Forge played a key role in America’s Revolutionary War because this is the place where George Washington camped in the winter of 1777-78 with 12,000 soldiers and 400 women when the British occupied Philadelphia. Our first stop was the place where the army camped, Muhlenberg Brigade. We learned that the nine log huts here showcase how harsh the living conditions were during the brutal winter. Our guide gave us an insight into how the soldiers tried to survive in the freezing weather and what they did to provide for food because supplies were short as the city was in the British hands.

Moving ahead, we went to see Washington’s Headquarters – the house from where George Washington led his campaign. We peeked inside all the rooms and were told that most of the items are replicas of what was there earlier except the staircase which is still original. It was the house of Isaac Potts, one of the owners of Valley Forge. To me it looked like a really charming countryside house, but for a big household, as about 25 people stayed here, it must have been small.

Photo: (PHLCVB)

Log cabins in Valley Forge Park show harsh conditions that US Continental Army & George Washington had to face Photo: (PHLCVB)

The trolley tour also took us to monuments like the National Memorial Arch that was made in the early 20th century to pay tribute to the sacrifices of the Continental Army and George Washington.

Then it was time to take a break from history and indulge in some retail therapy. We headed to Philadelphia Premium Outlets which is close to the garden and home to many brands ranging from luxury, premium to mid-range. Think Tory Burch, Coach, H&M, Forever 21 and many more. I shopped to my heart’s content here.

Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

Next day we got up for our date with two more gardens – Winterthur and Longwood. One of the few surviving estates in America, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, somehow reminded me of the popular Netflix show, Downton Abbey as soon as I walked in. Originally a working farm of 2,500 acres owned by Henry Francis du Pont from the wealthy and famous du Pont family in Delaware, it has been downsized to 1,000 acres. The Du Ponts were very big horticulturists and their love is evident even today in this exquisitely manicured garden.

Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library (PC : Pallavi Pasricha)

Originally constructed by the Du Pont family, Winterthur Garden is spread over 77 acres and also has a museum & library (PC: Pallavi Pasricha)

The best way to explore around is to sign on to a garden tram tour which takes about 30 minutes. But it was so beautiful that we decided to explore it on foot. The 77-acre wild garden has a naturalistic style, which means that it has not been manicured or landscaped too much and it was so ever so soothing to be in the midst of nature, imbibing the beauty of the trees, plants and flowers all around. Being a natural garden, there are many layers to it – the grass, shrubs, smaller trees and then the tall gigantic ones and they come in as many shades of green as you can think of. Oak, beech, tulip poplar and dove trees are common here.

We walked up to the ‘reflecting pool’, a stunning water body surrounded by green and apparently a popular spot for weddings. I can totally understand why, as amidst the twinkle of fairy lights, I am sure this dreamy setting would become even more magical.

We then spent time at a mansion here which started off as a 12-room home that was expanded to 50 and then to 175 rooms. That is how large the country estates in America used to be. As we went through it, we realised that it is virtually a living museum replete with art pieces, ceramics and furniture that Henry Francis du Pont collected during his life. We took the one hour guided tour that takes one through different rooms and by the end I was amazed at the size of the collection here, as there are more than 90,000 objects.

Longwood Gardens

Every time I told someone in Philadelphia that I would be visiting Longwood Garden they would go, “Oh my God it is stunning, so beautiful, you lucky girl.” And I would wonder what was the big deal about it, till I set foot at this magical place. The pride of Brandywine Valley and the countryside of Philadelphia, Longwood Gardens is like a fairy-tale magical land, with lovely lily ponds, walking and hiking trails, the most gorgeous and colourful flowers and dancing fountains.

Longwood Gardens are popular with couples seeking moments of serenity and contemplation Photo: (PHLCVB)

We reached here by lunch time and as we were famished from all the walking at Winterthur, we headed straight to lunch at ‘1906’ the restaurant at Longwood Gardens. There are many other dining options here also including a lovely beer garden. Over that meal I got to know that this garden is located in a borough called Kennett Square that is famed as the ‘mushroom capital of the world’ because more than half the country’s mushrooms are grown and exported from here.

For someone like me who loves mushrooms, it was a cue for me to order dishes with a dash of mushrooms. It started with Kennett Square Mushroom Soup which is the best mushroom soup I have had so far. It was thick, wholesome and ever so flavourful. We followed that up with porcini tagliatelle pasta and a delicious dessert.

After this heavy lunch, we obviously had to walk off the calories and there was no better way of doing it than by setting out to explore the garden. Of course that posed its own challenges. Longwood Gardens has 400 acres of meadows and gardens and there are so many sections here that you can almost get lost. Within just five minutes of walking, I saw a lovely treehouse and was immediately tempted to climb up but I was not sure whether I could still do it! I saw so many children nimbly scamper into it and for a moment I was envious of them.

But with our limited time, we were obliged to move on. We walked through a stunning path with gorgeous flowers on both sides and then reached a bench that is popularly known as the ‘whispering bench’. It is a semi-circular stone bench and if you whisper something from one side, the person on the other side can hear it. It was quite fascinating and in a throwback to younger days, giggling and laughing, some of us tried the trick several times.

Over the next few hours as we ambled along landscaped paths, we saw a dancing musical fountain show, went to the conservatory and just walked around appreciating the incredible beauty that lay at every twist and turn. The garden also has many fountains and our eyes were riveted by the dancing jets where the water went shooting up as high as 53 metres.

By the time I left the garden, it struck me that there was an amazing slice of history lay not just in the numerous museums, but in the vast country side of Philadelphia. I was glad that I had taken time out to explore these gardens which so ideally complemented my earlier experience in the city.


(This article is written by Pallavi Pasricha, a freelancer and regular contributor to India Outbound)

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