Journalist: Keelin Purcell
Photographer: Dan Stern
Arriving at Mt. Cuba Center, which is nestled in the Piedmont of Hockessin, Delaware, was quite the experience for the First Year Fellows of the Longwood Graduate Program. Passing through ornate metal-worked gates, we wound our way through the picturesque road and into the quiet parking lot. We spotted some of our favorite native plants while passing through a section of wooded garden before emerging at the manor house, a grand place to start our day’s journey.
Mt. Cuba Center is a unique garden dedicated to the study, conservation, and appreciation of plants native to the Appalachian Piedmont region through garden display, education, and research. The gardens are open only for guided tours, classes, and the annual Spring Wildflower Celebration, bringing in a total of around 8,000 visitors annually. Although an unusual approach to visitation, this allows the staff to maintain an intimate connection with the guests and to get their message across to each visitor. In keeping with the ideals of their founders Mt. Cuba Center is truly not trying to be everything to everybody, but instead to do everything as best as possible.
Mt. Cuba Center was founded by Mr. Lammot du Pont Copeland and his wife Pamela Cunningham Copeland. In 1935, when Mr. Copeland became President and Chairman of the Du Pont Company, they bought 115 acres near Mt. Cuba, Delaware and they gave their estate the same name. Over the years, the Copelands worked with three influential landscape architects. Thomas W. Sears was the first, hired to create formal garden spaces that would relate with their grand home. In 1950, they enlisted the expertise of noted landscape designer Marian C. Coffin to design their Round Garden. And in 1965, after becoming concerned about the loss of woodland garden plants from their native habitats, Seth Kelsey was hired to develop the woodland wildflower gardens and the ponds that would become Mrs. Copeland’s passion.
This passion in clear at Mt. Cuba Center, a place where the science of plant conservation and the enchantment of a garden come together. Director Rick Lewandowski explained the rich history of the estate and toured us through the different garden areas. Rick began as Director in 1999 and spent two years working with Mrs. Copeland before her death in January of 2001. Mr. Copeland had passed away in 1983 and Mrs. Copeland carried on their plan to make their estate a place to study and showcase the plants of the Piedmont region, building a staff of scientists and a Board of Directors to aid in the eventual transition to a public garden. Today the Board oversees Mt. Cuba Center, and also grants gifts to organizations supporting forest preservation, a cause that the Copelands strongly believed in.
The Copeland’s influence is easy to see throughout the property. We began our tour at the back terrace of the house, a space made for entertaining and relaxing, with a beautiful view of hills and forests. Mrs. Copeland cherished her time spent outdoors. In the mornings, the staff were asked to avoid the terrace area, because she would spend hours there, eating breakfast and enjoying the view across the property. Around the side of the terrace is the Round Garden, originally designed by Marion Coffin and recently renovated with the assistance of Wilmington based landscape architect Rodney Robinson. Mrs. Copeland understood that gardens change and didn’t expect everything to stay exactly the same. Consequently, there is not a focus on exact replication of plantings in the formal areas and the Round Garden is a shining example of this principle. New cultivars and unusual plantings reflect Marion Coffin’s style and keep the area fresh and interesting.
In fact, the whole garden is full of cutting edge cultivars and collections. As part of Rick’s position, he travels all around the Piedmont, collecting seed to be grown and evaluated at Mt. Cuba Center. The results are sprinkled throughout the garden. One of the most stunning areas is the horticulture evaluation program plot. Here, row after row of Echinacea cultivars greeted us with bobbing flowers in shades ranging from the traditional purple and pink to white, orange, and yellow. They are receiving no maintenance, so as to test which plants can perform well on their own. A summary of this summer’s results will go on the website and the echinaceas will remain in the field for several years for further observation, before the next species goes in.
We continued our walk through the wooded gardens, the ponds, and the meadow, all carefully maintained and arranged. Walking through these areas is like being on a unique and delicate journey, a feeling that Mrs. Copeland wanted to capture. Groupings of native plants give tour guides spots to explain each plant and how to group plants together. The collections now hold over 2000 taxa of native plants, all of which are labeled and mapped.
We ended up back at the house, where we met with additional staff members for a delicious lunch. Eileen Boyle, Director of Education, talked about Mt. Cuba Center’s recent identity building process, which included discussions with their perceived constituency and a marketing campaign aimed to link the name Mt. Cuba with botany and native plants. Julia Lo Ehrhardt, Education Assistant, discussed her management of the docent program, which currently has almost forty docents leading guided tours, mainly in the spring and the fall.
The Research Horticulturalist, Jeanne Frett, works on propagation, plant breeding, evaluation, and plant introductions. She also oversees the NAPCC collections of trillium and hexastylis. Jim Subach, the Natural Lands Supervisor, oversees the 650 acres of land that the Copelands purchased out of concern for the disappearance of open space. This position was created just five years ago when invasive species and erosion began to threaten the health of these areas. Jim has assessed the health of the land and has created maintenance plans. While maintaining these areas, he is actively engaging the neighbors and contiguous natural land foundations. He stressed the importance of this as an opportunity to educate the community and get their investment in the issues. Amy Highland, the Plant Recorder, acts as both a data manager and a researcher. She uses a total station and a map board to collect and enter data about all trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, and to use this data as a research tool.
What inspired me while touring around the gardens and listening to the staff was how much thought Rick and everyone else working here had put into their mission and how to relate it to the public. They are offering a strong and positive message about native and non-native plants that welcomes their community in, providing a garden full of inspiration and a knowledgeable staff that is willing to share. It is clear what an asset Mt. Cuba Center is to this area, and I am sure in saying that we will all be returning to this garden sanctuary during our time here.