Orchids, silver garden, and living walls at Longwood Gardens conservatory Leave a comment

September 30, 2023

Feathery Acacia leprosa climbing the walls

The first time I experienced the over-the-top plant showmanship that is Longwood Gardens was in 2016. I returned last week during the Philadelphia Area Fling, a 3.5-day garden tour hosted by Longwood’s conservatory manager, Karl Gercens. In honor of Karl, I started my Longwood visit in the conservatory. In fact, a few friends and I arrived at the garden right when it opened, a few hours before the Fling officially began, in order to have extra time at Longwood.

Hanging sphere of orchids

Longwood’s conservatory district is immense at 4.5 acres and extravagantly planted, and it still wows — even for this conservatory philistine (I plead my Southern background).

Orchid House

I’ll start my tour in the Orchid House, where I learned that each orchid is displayed for only a few days. After its short stint in the spotlight, each plant is switched out for another of the 5,000 orchids in the garden’s collection. So there are always new orchids to admire any day you visit.

Just in time for Halloween…Dracula!

Silver Garden

As you depart the Orchid House you step into — shazam! — a silvery wonderland. The Silver Garden wowed me so much that I stopped short and just looked at it before stepping inside.

Designed by acclaimed California landscape architect Isabelle Greene in 1989, the garden shines with silver and silver-green plants from dry regions around the world.

Many of them are familiar to me, since silver or gray foliage is an adaptation to a hot, drought-prone climate like that of Central Texas.

Look how spectacular this is! A variety of shades of silver combines with a variety of textures and shapes to make this garden sing.

Artemisia mauiensis ‘TNARTMS’, aka Maui wormwood, billows cloud-like over a pointillist groundcover.

The mid-layer caught my eye here: elongated prickly pear and a silver-tongued snake plant.

I love this Queen Victoria agave nestled in a bed of spidery gray tillandsias, alongside a pointy mound of Deuterocohnia brevifolia, which doesn’t even look like a plant but a moss-covered rock.

Queen Victoria agave and tillandsias

Containers of cactus, agave, aloe, and snake plant add a little moonlight yellow.

More tillandsias creeping crab-like around boulders, with haworthia and sempervivum clustered below.

Gray rock, silver tillandsias, and a silver-green tree (an olive, maybe? can’t remember).

One of the biggest agaves I’ve ever seen grows here — majestic as a queen — attended by a bowing, silver-leaved acacia.

Weeping acacia in bloom

A silver-haired lady-in-waiting to the queen

An old friend here — toothy-leaved Wheeler’s sotol

The deeper into the garden, the bigger the plants, until you reach these feathery cycads, towering cactus, and gleaming palm.

One more peek at the acacia, agave, and cactus

A pewter, feather-leaved Encephalartos lehmannii — gorgeous

And this cluster of living stars — Agave parryi

Silver perfection with black spines and teeth

It was hard to tear myself away.

Fuzzy cacti populate a rocky window planter, with silver ponyfoot spilling over like a waterfall.

As you emerge from the Silver Garden and enter the Historic Main Conservatory (I think), a jazz-hands row of Bismarck palms echoes the silver theme.

With pink canna, even better!

New conservatory in the works

As if Longwood’s conservatory district weren’t large enough, it’s being expanded. A new 32,000-square-foot West Conservatory is under construction — because more is more — and “its asymmetrical peaks will rise from a pool on which the entire building will seemingly float.” A reason to return.

Green Wall restrooms

When nature calls at Longwood, boy, does it call. This is the restroom wing in the conservatory, where a serpentine path to individual restrooms winds between soaring, curved walls alive with a tapestry of ferns and other plants.

I mean, have you ever seen anything like this on this scale? For freaking restrooms?

No dark, dingy restroom hallway here. The space is as much of a horticultural art garden as any part of the conservatory.

Peace lilies rise like hooded cobras from their vertical planting pockets.

What an immersive experience. It was hard to leave the restrooms — weird as that is to say — but there was more to see.

Next up: A creative children’s garden and the impressive main conservatories at Longwood Gardens. For a look back at Charles Cresson’s Hedgleigh Spring garden in Swarthmore, click here.

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Digging Deeper

Come learn about garden design from the experts at Garden Spark! I organize in-person talks by inspiring designers, landscape architects, and authors a few times a year in Austin. These are limited-attendance events that sell out quickly, so join the Garden Spark email list to be notified in advance; simply click this link and ask to be added. The Season 7 lineup can be found here.

Tour several Austin gardens on Saturday, November 4, on the Garden Conservancy’s Open Day tour for Travis County. Tickets must be purchased online in advance and will be available beginning September 1st.

All material © 2023 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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