2017 Summer Bucket List: The Fountains of Longwood Gardens

The buzz had been building for 2 years as the fountains of Longwood Gardens underwent a massive, 90 million renovation behind the curtain of construction walls and ‘do not enter’ signs.  You kind of got used to it.  For years the fountain area had been my least liked section of Longwood and as far as I was concerned it was only an area to walk around and avoid while you explored other more exciting sections.  Sometimes a fountain went off.  Ok nice.  I almost felt a little sorry for Pierre du Pont if this was all his obsessive passion for fountains could put together.  Plus I hated all the rows of pathetic Norway Maples which lined the area.  Like I said, it wasn’t a favorite.

Holy crap has that changed.  The restored fountains were reopened this past May and if you happen to have the chance to see them I think you’ll agree they’re friggin’ awesome!  The grounds have been rebuilt into something which could compete with an European palatial spread, but the fountains are something all to themselves and have to be experienced in person.

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Looking in to the heart of the five acre main fountain gardens.  The sounds of water surround you.

Before I get too in to it I just want to mention my kids came along, and a 9 and 11 year old who are more interested in gymnastics and tag were not the best visiting companions, but I decided to take one for the team and hope a little of the experience sinks in.  They love the Christmas show… but strolling and looking at plants… not so much.

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The Orangery in its summer finery.  Throughout the greenhouses things are always perfect regardless of the season, and I question the soul of anyone who isn’t a little amazed the first time they enter.    

We stopped for ice-cream first.  It’s a two hour drive for us so that’s the least I could do for my surprisingly well behaved travel companions, and as they finished that off and played in the children’s section (which I’m glad to see they haven’t yet outgrown) and then toured the indoor gardens, it was at least an hour before I got the first “I’m bored”.

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An awesome canna inside the Orangery.  I loved it and I wanted it, but unfortunately couldn’t find the name.  Perhaps it’s one of the many cannas which have been raised and hybridized in one of Longwood’s many research and breeding programs. 

We tried to move quick.  Maybe getting there at 3 O’clock was indeed a little early considering all the kids wanted was a light show… but the plants, the plants 😉

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There’s water all over.  This was just one of the many fountains of the children’s garden.

The water garden was an interesting diversion.  This is always my favorite spot and I was glad the kids seemed somewhat interested in the water lilies and massive Victoria Lilies which fill the pools.

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The giant pads were approaching five and six feet in diameter, and have a reputation of being able to support babies and small children with their buoyant structure.

I of course always have to touch the nasty spines even though I’m well aware of how sharp they are.  The undersides of the pads and outer coverings of the flower buds are all well defended with this barrier.

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It’s thought the raised lips of the pads prevents them from growing on top of one another, and the two notches on the rim allow rainwater to escape.

While I was trying to explain just how awesome these plants were, the kids were absolutely distracted by the small mosquito fish which filled each pond section.  For the next 20 minutes all they wanted to do was catch one…. or two… or a bigger one… or one more… or just one more…

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Got one.

Fortunately the Longwood employees were very pleasant about the kids harassing their mosquito fish.  They explained how the fish control the mosquito larva and added a few things about nearby plants as well, but overall just let the kids enjoy a little wet fun.  I’m sure this will be the memory they keep from this area even though I tried my darnedest to explain the Longwood history of hybridizing these Victoria lilies and their fragrant, night blooming, beetle pollinated, flowers and… well this is where they caught fish.

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The giant victorias are nice enough, but these day and night blooming tropical waterlilies aren’t too shabby either, and their bright colors and fancy foliage could keep you here hours just exploring the variety.

I made another attempt to visit every single highlight of the gardens but was quickly derailed by another “I’m bored”.  The gardening bug definitely either skips a generation or is a recessive gene since my two are nearly completely empty of any chlorophyll.  We sat for a while playing with cameras and looking at pictures and then headed over for dinner instead.

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Round about 6pm the gardens started to fill up.  It was a ‘pop up’ Luminaries weekend, and thousands of candles were laid out across the lawns and lined up along pathways, and one by one the individual candles were being lit. 

As dusk began to fall the luminaries were being lit throughout the gardens.  Our visit just happened to coincide with a surprise luminary weekend where thousands of luminaries ‘pop up’ throughout the gardens.  While the boy focused on trying to blow out a candle without being caught, we did manage to see at least a few of the best garden areas.  A favorite is the long border which shades from white to yellow to gold…

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One of my favorite rudbeckias, ‘prairie sun’.

…to red to pinks…

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Pink zinnias, canna, and crape myrtle.

…to purples to blues…

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Cleome, ageratum, dahlias, and I think vitex.  The dark purple bushes in the back are a very cool non-hardy euphorbia which I always look for but never find on sale. 

and the crowds continued to drift in…

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Blankets and chairs setting up for the show, even though it was still at least an hour to go.

Once the sun set and the lights came on things really started to get amazing.

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Food stands, wine and beer stands, fancy dining… Longwood at night has become quite the date night location.  

We headed out one more time to see the lanterns at full effect.

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One of the main lawns covered with a spiral of luminaries.  Getting lost amongst the lanterns is the perfect excuse to hold hands 😉

I hope my random point and shoot photography gives you some idea of how cool Longwood is at night.  People whisper.  It’s really captivating.

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Candlelight from the luminaries, soft lighting for the plants, and in many spots the sweet fragrance of night scented flowers such as these angel trumpets (Brugmansia).

There really were a lot of candles.  I think the gardens would be nice enough on any night, but I’m glad we had the chance to see the luminaries as well.  Rumor has it quite a few other people also got the chance to see the show.  I noticed on their website that most nights ended up being sold out…. so even on a regular weekend make sure you have your tickets purchased before you head down.

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I think of Luminaries as a Southern Christmastime tradition, but here in the North I’ve got to say summer nights work out much better.

Once we got through the luminaries it was finally time for the 9:15 fountain show.  The show was epic with music, lights, sounds, and fountains spouting everywhere.  From what I hear the highest can shoot up to 175 feet (53m) into the air and when you’re watching or wandering through the show, it absolutely surrounds you.

My daughter’s favorite…. pink. She insisted on many photos to catch the pinkness.

We settled into the upper area where the largest fountains are located and it was amazing to be surrounded by all the noise and water.  Even with the highlights right there in front of you, you still had to keep looking around to catch the parts of the show up closer to the main viewing area.  There were spouting columns of flames after all!

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Lights, fountains, and FLAMES!  

The fountains were impressive enough during the day, but the show at night was truly epic.  Who would have thought that water shot into the air could be so entertaining… well, who other than Pierre du Pont I guess 🙂

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It was really cool.

Seven hours later we were finally on the road back home.  I barely got to see half the things I wanted to but it was still a great visit and the kids are already talking about a Christmas return.  I can do that, and hopefully we can make it there the day after Thanksgiving again since it worked out great crowd-wise and traffic-wise last year.  The fountain shows go on until September 30th and then I think it’s all about chrysanthemums then for the fall season.  The chrysanthemum show is supposed to be exceptional as well, full of horticultural wonders and floral amazement, and it’s also still on my bucket list to visit that as well… but I think I’ll do that one on my own 😉