Mount Cuba’s Native Garden Wonderland

The Class of 2016 visited Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware on August 4th. Entering through the house, we were briefed in the beautifully proportioned Colonial Revival style former residence by the senior staff, and were quickly made aware of the scope of Mt. Cuba’s work.

Yet another photo opportunity!

Yet another photo opportunity!

However, the briefing did not prepare us for the horticultural impact of the gardens once we stepped outside. Our garden tour with Eileen Boyle, Mt. Cuba Center’s Director of Education, probably took twice as long as projected, with the Fellows stopping every few yards to photograph the abundant butterflies, flowers, and insects, and exclaiming over each new plant discovery!

Mt. Cuba Center was formerly the home of Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland. The du Pont Copelands were at the vanguard of encouraging the use of native Eastern North American plants to create ecologically vibrant and beautiful horticultural displays. Mrs. du Pont Copeland was a forward-thinking conservationist, advocating the use of native American plants in gardens. The extraordinary garden was designed in stages by three landscape architects, beginning with the gardens and terraces closest to the house in the mid-1930s. The woodland gardens were completed in the 1960s by landscape designer Seth Kelsey. Dr Richard Lighty, the first Director of The Longwood Graduate Program, was appointed Director of Horticulture at Mt. Cuba in 1983.

The garden is quite formal near the house, playful sculptures  and carefully selected native perennial borders inviting the visitor to explore further.

The garden is quite formal near the house. Playful sculptures and carefully selected native perennial borders invite the visitor to explore further.

The 583 acre estate features 50 acres of display gardens and managed landscapes, the remainder of the estate being primarily natural lands featuring a variety of the landforms and habitats of the Appalachian Piedmont.

Mt Cuba is an important habitat for bees and other insects

Mt. Cuba is an important habitat for bees and other insects.

The gardens contain a diverse range of native Eastern North American plants arranged in displays reflecting various habitats ranging from perennial borders to meadows, woodlands, and ponds. The result is a harmonious series of gardens that are exquisite works of beauty as well as functioning ecosystems alive with butterflies, beneficial insects, and birds. Achieving this natural look is deceptively complex and requires an eye for shape, form, and color.

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The chain of ponds featuring moisture-loving plants of eastern USA

Mt. Cuba is slowly unfurling its public garden identity, taking careful and considered steps towards increasing the audience for its remarkable landscapes and living collections.  ‘Gardening on a Higher Level’ is the recently adopted tagline for Mt Cuba. The line is reflected in its educational offerings, including Mt. Cuba Center’s Ecological Gardening Certificate course, with units including “Sustainable Landscape Techniques” and “Inviting Wildlife Into the Garden”. Other offerings include gardening, art, and photography. Seven summer internships are also offered each year. An internship typically involves four days per week working in the garden with the other day spent on projects, field trips and classroom activities.

Mt. Cuba Center undertakes plant trials of native American plant species. Evaluations thus far include Coreopsis, Echinacea, and North American Asters. Currently 53 cultivars and selections from 14 different species of Baptisia – false indigo – are undergoing evaluation to assess their horticultural potential. Over fifteen cultivars and selections have been introduced to American gardens by Mt. Cuba including the Golden Fleece goldenrod (Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’), and Trillium grandiflorum ‘Quicksilver’.

Owen Cass explaining insect monitoring techniques. He's using a fine screen over a garden vacuum to collect insects in the trial area

Owen Cass explaining insect monitoring techniques. He’s using a fine screen over a garden vacuum to collect insects in the trial area. Eileen Boyle, Director of Education, is in the right foreground.

A research collaboration between Mt. Cuba Center and the University of Delaware is comparing the ecological value of native plants with their corresponding cultivars and improved varieties. Owen Cass, Mt. Cuba Fellow and University of Delaware Masters candidate explained that the research is aimed at determining whether plant cultivars, which may differ from their ‘wild’ cousins in terms of flower size, color, or shape, offer the same or similar ecological services as their wild counterparts.

This remarkable garden is open to the public. For details on visiting take a look at the Mt. Cuba Center website.

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