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Springtime is the Best Time! Visits to Mt. Cuba Center and Winterthur

Turk's cap lilies (Lilium tenuifolium) blooming in a spring rain.

Springtime is the best time

Springtime is the best time! Fellow plant lovers, are you with me? New green shoots poking up, tiny, perfect leaves unfurling, spring ephemerals blooming . . . ahh.

Here in the Mid-Atlantic region, by the third week of May, the world is "wall-to-wall green," as my mom likes to say. After coming through a week of sopping weather and 7" of rain in the gauges, we are well into the spring growing season. Plus, the days continue to lengthen and the sun is shifting northward in the sky. Add in the cool nights and warm days, and it equals the zenith of the year by my reckoning.

The perfect time for garden travel

We enjoyed an excellent outing recently to soak in the splendid verdure. Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware, and the Winterthur Estate in New Castle County, Delaware, offer gorgeous spring garden displays. Both estates house excellent naturalistic botanical gardens. At this time of year, they are awash in color from thousands of azalea, rhododendron, and wildflower blooms. Late spring is one of the best times to visit botanical gardens and arboreta. It's a favorite weekend activity of mine, and fortunately my husband, a.k.a. staff photographer, goes along with me to enjoy the sights.

Mt. Cuba Center

Unlike most botanical gardens with international specimens, Mt. Cuba Center features a collection of exclusively native plants. Situated atop a knoll that overlooks fields and forests of the Piedmont region of northern Delaware, Mt. Cuba showcases the beauty of native plants in formal gardens, woodland walks, a wildflower meadow, and pond-side plantings. Lammot du Pont Copeland and Pamela Cunningham Copeland purchased the original 127-acre estate in 1935 and set about creating a variety of gardens and habitat. Today, Mt. Cuba Center encompasses just over 1,000 acres, having merged in 2018 with the Red Clay Reservation. 

This is a fabulous place to go for ideas when you think you want to get started landscaping with native plants on your own several hundred-acre estate. Or in your backyard, or on your apartment balcony, of course. 

Upon arrival, guests park in a lot secluded in the forest. A path leads up to the estate house, where admissions tickets are sold. Admission costs $10 per adult/$5 per child, or you can buy a season's pass for $45. Mt. Cuba Center is open Wednesday - Sunday from 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM, with extended hours on second Saturdays and Thursdays in the summer. More info at

In spring, blousy, fragrant native azaleas steal the show throughout the grounds at Mt. Cuba. All azaleas native to Eastern North America are deciduous. They come in shades of white, pink, salmon, and flame orange. Many are deliciously fragrant. 

The first garden space visitors see upon walking out of the estate house is the large formal garden to the south. Anchored by a pair of stately hop hornbeams (Ostrya virginiana) on the stone terrace, the gardens spread along carefully tended walkways leading to a fountain and stunning sculpture. 

This is one of several garden "rooms" near the Main House. The South Garden is composed of symmetrical plantings of herbaceous perennials, shrubs, and small trees - all native species. In May, the featured blooms included false indigo (Baptisia 'Carolina Moonlight), spiderwort (Tradescantia 'Concord Grape'), Bowman's root (Gillenia trifoliata 'Pink Profusion'), and several others. 

The fountain at the end of the gardens is ringed with creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), beardtongue (Penstemon 'Dark Towers'), and columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Click to download the full plant list for Mt. Cuba Center's South Garden.[/caption]

I helped myself to a handy plant list with photos, plant names, and key characteristics of all of the species planted in the formal gardens. Click the image above to download the guide.

This beautiful cast bronze sculpture of a maple seed, or samara, turns at the slightest breeze. We were immediately old friends.

Beginning in 2002, staff at Mt. Cuba began systematically trialing native plant species and cultivars. At the conclusion of the multi-year trials, they publish helpful reports with evaluation results and recommendations. Their researchers have also worked with the nursery industry to introduce new notable selections and cultivars that perform well in garden settings. 

If you have tried native plants in the past with mixed results, it is worth a perusal of Mt. Cuba Center's trial reports for monarda, phlox, coreopsis, baptisia, heuchera, echinacea, and aster. The reports contain information about bloom profusion, color, bloom duration, sturdiness, overall vigor, and pest and disease resistance.

This Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum) was a visual and olfactory knockout. Standing approximately eight feet tall, the shrub was at peak bloom with clusters of peachy-orange blossoms. A woodland full of these beauties bursts with their soft fireworks punctuating the understory.

Gorgeous groundcovers abound at Mt. Cuba Center. A twinleaf's (Jeffersonia diphylla) hydrophobic surface beads dew.

You can throw caution to the wind and plant as many of these native wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) vines as you like. In contrast with the more commonly planted Asian wisterias (Wisteria floribunda and Wisteria sinensis), the native version is much better behaved, yet still stunning and quite fragrant.

Numerous lush, flowering rhododendrons also line Mt. Cuba's woodland paths.This beauty was showboating in a beam of sunlight.

A series of ponds connected by gurgling streams can be found downhill from the Main House after passing through Mt. Cuba's woodland walks and wildflower meadow. Japanese primroses and a selection of carnivorous plants, bog-dwelling orchids, and rushes line the ponds' banks. There is a small gazebo where visitors can rest and contemplate the peaceful reflections on the pond. 

As we walked through the grounds, we enjoyed the melodious birdsong and buzzing of insects who were busily enjoying life in a natural garden and forest setting. Mt. Cuba Center is truly inspiring for gardeners who appreciate naturalistic plantings. It's worth a visit in each season.


Our next stop was a mere twelve-minute drive away. Winterthur constitutes another diamond in the necklace of publicly accessible du Pont estates in the Wilmington-Philadephia region.  Set on a 1,000 acre property, it features a mansion with 175 rooms decorated with early American furniture and architectural elements, as well as a 60-acre naturalistic garden designed by Henry Francis du Pont in the mid-20th century. Du Pont opened Winterthur to the public in 1941. Today, a $20 admission ticket will get you in for a tram tour, introductory home tour, and free reign to walk through the grounds. More in-depth home tours can be purchased for an additional fee. 

Henry Francis du Pont had three main interests he expressed in the development of Winterthur: the collection of American decorative arts and architectural decorations; a love of botany; and dairy farming. The first two are still readily apparent to visitors. His prize-winning herd of Holstein-Friesian dairy cattle was sold following his death, although the estate continues to maintain fields for a pastoral effect.

The Winterthur Visitor's Center lies nestled in a small valley. The 1960s-era Japanese architectural design projects a serene and airy atmosphere. This is where you purchase tickets, but it also houses a lovely cafe and seating area.

Departing from the visitor's center, a series of white arrows point to the week's best walking route through everything in bloom on the grounds. Some of the paths are paved, while others lead along springy pine bark mulch trails. Winterthur's grounds were designed with all levels in mind: soaring canopy trees mix with understory trees and shrubs, and low herbaceous plants swath the ground in a blanket of textured vegetation.

An American beech and an oak grow together beside the path. I guess some trees benefit from close proximity. These two certainly looked happy and healthy joined at the hip. Stunning azaleas light up the understory.

Du Pont built a number of viewing and seating areas into his landscape. This sweeping overlook now provides a view of the tree canopy below. At one time it must have offered a longer, more open view. 

Hues of butter and cream stand out against the greenery behind this native azalea.

One of my favorite areas at Winterthur is the Quarry Garden, a lovely rock-lined grotto with stone steps leading down to a small stream. Water drips and gurgles down the rock faces and gently flows under a stone bridge. Here bloom primrose and iris among hostas, ferns, and rushes. Come summer, brilliant red cardinal flower compliments the softer hues of Joe-pye-weed.

Then there was this little guy.

Winterthur's current exhibition theme is called "Follies: Architectural Whimsy in the Garden." We saw lacy gazebos, a full-fledged medieval castle, and this lovely Ottoman tent situated on a knoll overlooking pond and pasture. I tested the cushions inside the tent. Quite comfortable!

Along the spillway leading out of the Quarry Garden, we found colonies of tadpoles wiggling and wriggling their way into the world.

Interestingly, upon arriving at Winterthur, the main estate house does not immediately come into view. It is not set high on a hill, but rather tucks into a slope. We have taken a tour on previous visits to learn about the furnishings, but skipped it this time around. The museum features rotating exhibitions on display to the public. Winterthur also hosts graduate academic programs in American material culture and art conservation.

The only downside to springtime garden travel . . .

. . . is that one has to leave home, where there is so much to see, do, and enjoy in one's own garden. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to enjoy visits to stunning estates and botanical gardens at this time of year when they are in their prime. I feel very fortunate to live in the Mid-Atlantic area, where such day-trip options abound. Next up: US National Arboretum, perhaps?

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