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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.

Mt. Cuba Center

August 17, 2012 – Mt. Cuba Center, Hockessin, DE
(written by Lindsey K. Kerr, photographs by Chunying Ling)

Bright and early, the First Year Fellows and Dr. Lyons left Townsend Hall for Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware. Mt. Cuba Center was founded by Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland at the site of her home. In 1935, Mr. and Mrs. Copeland built a stately house they named “Mt. Cuba” and soon afterwards began developing the original agricultural landscape into a series of garden spaces.

The Copelands took a particular interest in plants native to the Piedmont, which was typical of their home site. From the time they moved in until Mrs. Copeland’s death in 2001, the gardens grew in both number of individual plants and diversity of appropriate species. Today, the Copeland’s house and gardens are maintained by Mt. Cuba Center staff and the organization itself has become a non-profit dedicated to native plants of the the Appalachian Piedmont Region.

Upon our arrival, we were warmly greeted in the parking lot by Longwood Graduate Program alumna Julia Lo-Ehrhardt. She escorted us to the Main House and introduced us to the senior staff. We spent the rest of the morning with Interim Executive Director Steve Martinenza and his senior team learning about Mt. Cuba’s strategic plan and management practices. The different managers introduced us to the history of Mt. Cuba, the founding family, and how Mt. Cuba continues to evolve and grow to fulfill the vision of its founder. We learned about Mt. Cuba’s research and educational programs as well as its commitment to improving the visitor experience and making stronger connections with the public. Mt. Cuba staff discussed their respect for Mrs. Copeland’s ideas and aesthetics and their challenge to embrace the future. They want to enhance native plant accessibility for the average homeowner and encourage their greater use in garden design.

Later in the afternoon we headed outside for a tour of the grounds. First stop was the new Trial Gardens, which were two years in the making and initially planted in spring 2012. Gardener George Coombs explained the goals of the trial garden as we admired the set-up and the plants. The trial gardens aren’t just focused on the latest introductions—they are also trialing tried-and-true cultivars to find out which ones are really the best for gardeners in the region.

Horticulturalist Marcy Weigelt then gave us a quick walking tour of the West Slope Path, the ponds, and the meadow garden, soon pausing in the meadow garden to admire the large number of pollinators and several exotic praying mantises. We finished up our field trip with a visit to the greenhouses where staff grow approximately 10,000 plants every year. In the future, they plan to start collecting more seeds locally for propagation as part of Mt. Cuba’s commitment to native plants of the Piedmont region.

Visiting Mt. Cuba Center was a wonderful experience and a great way for First Year Fellows to finish up their summer field trip series of DuPont legacy gardens!

First year Fellows visit Mt. Cuba Center

July 22, 2011 – Mt. Cuba Center, DE
(written by Sara Levin, photographs by Quill Teal-Sullivan and Martin Smit)

The First Year Longwood Graduate Fellows’ inaugural summer field trip was to the Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware.  Historically, this property was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland who transformed open farmland into the woodland gardens and wildlife landscape we find there today.  The Copelands bought the property in 1935 and started their plant collection soon thereafter.  Native plants became their great interest, which is still clear today in the garden’s mission to remain “…dedicated to the study, conservation, and appreciation of plants native to the Appalachian Piedmont region through garden display, education, and research.”  Currently, Mt. Cuba Center works to balance several contrasts: public/private, open/secluded, contemporary/ traditional, native/non-native.

As a non-profit organization, Mt. Cuba Center is in its infancy and is in the process of determining its priorities and direction of growth.  At the moment, the garden is open to the public by appointment only (with the exception of an annual Wildflower Day each spring).   This limits the foot traffic and helps preserve the plant collection.

The grounds are designed with elegance and intent.  As you move away from the main house, the gardens become wilder.  The foot paths wind through the grounds in such a way that you can never see too far ahead on your walk, adding a sense of mystery. The woodland garden was not only beautiful but on a record hot day, we found comfort in the shade of the giant tulip poplars and white pines.

As the mission states, there is a great emphasis on native plants, especially those native to the Piedmont region (a geological region stretching from New York to Alabama, just west of the Atlantic Coastal Plain).  This does not mean that you will only find native plants at Mt. Cuba Center.  History and legacy are also considered in the plant collection and some non-native plants remain as a reminder of the family that once lived on the grounds and thought highly enough to plant them.

The First Year Fellows were lucky to have Mt. Cuba Center Director Rick Lewandowski as our knowledgeable guide.  Mr. Lewandowski shared many of their exciting programs and important collections with our group.  Mt. Cuba Center does extensive plant research and is looking to expand in this area with a new plant trials research facility on its way. It is also the local authority on trilliums, not to be missed in the spring!

After an extensive tour of the grounds, the Fellows joined a few key staff members for lunch and were able to gain more insight into the workings of Mt. Cuba Center.  A return trip is slated for the fall to enjoy the changing colors and to revisit this woodland retreat.