Nowhere else in the universe is there a place that has more gardens in such proximity as Philadelphia. A record number of 36 public gardens, botanical gardens or arboretum, and sprawling historical landscapes, all of them within 50 kilometers of city limits, make Philly (as Philadelphia is loving called), the garden capital of America. And as you pass through its historical sites, institutions such as Independence Hall, Liberty Bell, and other relics from the days of the American Revolution, you will realize that at its core is a city with a tender heart, the way its founder British Quaker William Penn had envisioned. It was after all Penn’s dream to see Philly flourishing with gardens and abundant green spaces. Not only did he name his colony Penn’s Woods or Pennsylvania, he even lend his touch to the five main squares of the city that go back to the time he founded Philadelphia in the 17th century. To this day the city thrives with gardens, endless walking and jogging trails, seasonal gardens, kitschy landscapes, and urban parks aside from rambling historical parks that sing glories of America’s history.
A holiday in Philly is somewhat incomplete if you do not round up its many gardens and parks and soak up the calm and the simmering history underneath. We help you with a quick checklist.
Located in the Brandywine Creek Valley, Longwood is easily Philly’s largest and most sought-after garden with 1100 acres of meadows, gardens, woodlands, and a grand conservatory. Come summer and Longwood gushes with the greatest fountain display in all of North America that includes three dedicated fountain gardens going on until late September. Between Thursdays and Saturdays, the evenings bring about a musical fountain show where jets of water dance to music while they are brilliantly illuminated. Quite a spectacle they make. Learn about the history of this garden and how it changed hands from William Penn’s commissioners to a Quaker farmer. Did you know that the gardens also host an extensive range of educational programs and internships in horticulture? Year-round the venue bustles with flower shows, children’s concerts, gardening demonstrations, musical theatre, firework displays, fountain shows outside of elaborate Christmas lighting displays all through the holiday season.
A half-hour drive west of Philadelphia, Chanticleer is a 48-acre contemporary garden in a historic setting. Above all, Chanticleer is a study of forms and textures in gardening comprising lush foliage, flowers, sculptures, and towering trees. You have here flora that ranges from endemic to exotic, with an exclusive display of tropical plants and ones that grow in sun and shade. Plan a visit to Chanticleer between May and June to catch a majority of its plants in bloom. Some of its definite highlights include the pink dahlia, white tulips, pale-yellow moon chimes, dainty pink cherry blossom, and the coral-red Iceland poppy. Walk around the Pond Garden to take in the sight of its ornamental blossoms such as the Purple Sensation and the Phlox and Germanium, while the Spanish bluebells hold sway over the lawn. The gardens are open between 10:00 am and 05:00 pm from Wednesday to Sunday and until 08:00 pm on Fridays, May through Labour Day.
Andalusia Historic House and Gardens
It is not without a reason that Philadelphia is called the ‘cradle of horticulture’, because much of the country’s horticulture history took root in this region. With a year-long calendar comprising flower shows, educations programs, lectures, musical fountains, and horticulture displays, it is no wonder that Philly’s public life to a large extent revolves around its parks and gardens. One such is the 50-acre riverside estate, Andalusia Historic House and Gardens. A historical landmark to the north of the city, visitors delight in its Greek Revival style, the native woodlands and formal gardens lauded for their horticultural as well as architectural significance. The ancestral home of the Biddles, you have access to its perfectly manicured formal gardens, always fragrant and exploding with endemic blossoms. This includes a Green Walk Garden and a Walled Rose Garden refurbished by British landscape artist, Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd. The Andalusia House perched atop a wooded headland and looking out over the Delware River has been a landmark of great historical recall for about two centuries now. This erstwhile ancestral home of the Biddle family gives you access to pristine acres of native woodlands and sprawling gardens, and also to the Biddle home, a treasure-trove of paintings, historical gems outside of a being a gem in Greek Revival in all of America.
The 92-acre Morris Arboretum’s rambling gardens splashed with flowers, age-old trees, winding paths, and fountains make it a popular public garden of Philadelphia. Its highlight: an open-air Garden Railway display that features a long track with train models. You can view it in the summer and through the holiday season. Don’t miss its spring installation by Patrick Dougherty, Loop de Loop, a sculpture that is inspired by a roller-coaster with its share of switchbacks and spirals. At the top, the sculpture is held together with sticks intertwined, forming a warren of rooms underneath that are open to Philly’s sunny skies serving as a hide-and-seek paradise for its visiting kids. Hundreds of willow sticks of the Miyabe and Purple willow family all the way from New York have gone into the construction of this masterpiece and intends to remain in place for about two years, as long as it can survive in its natural environment. The arboretum with its proximity to the nearby University of Pennsylvania intends to integrate the humanities with art and science. Don’t miss its towering Tree Adventure, a 450-foot-long canopy walk some 50-foot over the ground designed to give you a panoramic view of the surrounding forests. Scuttle along the swaying suspension bridge, clamber up the rope net set high among the trees and perch yourself in a life-size bird’s nest as you get a glimpse over the treetops taking in their contours and colors.
Shofuso Japanese House and Garden
Located in West Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Shofuso is a Japanese house built in 17th century-style offering an evocative perspective of Philadelphia’s Japanese culture and its long-standing history starting from 1876 until the present day. When Shofuso was built in 1953, it incorporated the traditional building techniques in terms of materials used. Its hinoki-style roof is still intact and is the only one of its kind to be found anywhere outside Japan. You can tour the house along with the koi pond, the island, the tiered waterfall, a tea garden featuring a tea house, and lush courtyard gardens meandering up to a bathhouse. Soon after it was built, the Shofuso House was shipped to New York where it was displayed in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art, and once more returned to West Fairmount Park in 1958. The gardens gear up in July annually to host Japan’s summer star festival where a host of fun family-friendly activities are scheduled that include origami craft, storytelling, writing wishes on bits of paper to be hung later on the branches of bamboo trees. Experience the story of Shofuso come alive on your tour of the house and its extensive gardens. The gardens are open between late-March through October from Wednesday to Friday 10:00 am to 04:00 pm, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00 am to 05:00 pm. Between November and mid-December, the venue is open only on weekends which are Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 am to 04:00 pm. Don’t forget to feed the Koi fish in the waters of the little pond under the 75-year-old weeping cherry tree. It only adds to your overall experience at Shofuso.
Make the most of your holiday in America’s garden capital. Pay your respects at its flourishing horticulture spaces, collect enough souvenirs and memorabilia that come in a fascinating array of stickers, stamps, staff signatures, code words, and the highly-coveted America’s Garden Capital Passport with stamps of the ‘participating public gardens’ of Philadelphia you have visited thus far.