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By Chris Cohan

The largest concentration of premier gardens in America is a short ride away. Outside Wilmington, Delaware, is Nemours, the grandest formal French garden in North America. Close by is Mt. Cuba Center, the top native plant botanical garden. Winterthur, the grandest of the many estates in the area, and best known for its decorative arts museum, has glorious, naturalistic gardens to explore. One reason for the concentration of all this beauty is that the area was the center of early American prosperity.

The weather is just that much milder than Rye, providing a wider variety of plant material to choose from. Plants grow lusher and are rarely victim of winter burn.

Turning any gardening dream into reality is not always easy. Especially when you want to transform hundreds of acres of raw land into some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes anywhere. That is exactly what Alfred I. du Pont did at Nemours Estate. He created the largest formal French gardens in North America, surrounded by acres of scenic woodlands, meadows, and lawns.

Alfred loved showering his wife, Alicia, with gifts. No separate bedrooms for that couple. By far the grandest of his gifts was the spectacular home that he built for her on a 3,000-acre plot of land. He hired Carrère and Hastings, a prestigious New York architectural firm, to design the mansion in the late 18th-century French style that she adored. Alfred named the estate Nemours, after the French town that his great-great-grandfather hailed from.

The estate includes The Long Walk. Lined with Japanese cryptomeria, pink-flowering horse chestnuts, and pin oaks, it extends from the Mansion to the Reflecting Pool. The 157 jets at the center of the one-acre pool shoot water 12 feet into the air; when they are turned off, the entire “Long Walk” is reflected in the pool, holding 800,000 gallons of water and taking three days to fill. Carrara marble fountain statues of Triton face each other across the pool. This spectacular work is the crowning centerpiece of the Nemours Vista.

The Sunken Gardens is complete with walls and steps of Italian travertine; the statuary of Carrara marble. The Four Borders is named for its mixed herbaceous borders – 8,500 square feet of annuals and perennials. What garden would not be complete without Americana memorabilia? Cannons from the <U.S.S. Constitution> (“Old Ironsides”), the frigate that took part in the War of 1812, overlook a lawn area.

Mt. Cuba was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland, who were visionary in their approach to conservation, and in their creation of the Center. Mrs. Copeland’s founding vision was: “I want this to be a place where people will learn to appreciate our native plants and to see how these plants can enrich their lives so that they, in turn, will become conservators of our natural habitats.”

The Copelands transformed open field farmland into a lush botanical garden featuring some of the most beautiful native plants. Pathways are well cared for and accessible for all. Strolling through the calm natural setting the importance of native plants and natural lands is confirmed. It is not enough simply to observe beauty. It is clear we must also protect it for future generations.

Winterthur, founded by Henry Francis du Pont, is the premier museum of American decorative arts, reflecting both early America and the du Pont family’s life. Its 60-acre naturalistic garden is among the country’s best. Gardening was du Pont’s first love. Even after he turned his former home into a museum in 1951, he kept his garden in private ownership until his death in 1969. He said that while after 1951 he was only a visitor to the museum, he was still Winterthur’s head gardener.

The garden at Winterthur wraps around the house. The most formally landscaped and gardened areas are those closest to the house. As one gets farther away, the tame, cultivated garden gives way to a freer wild garden style.

Winterthur’s 1,000 acres encompass rolling hills, streams, meadows, and forests. du Pont selected the choicest plants from around the world to enhance the natural setting, arranging them in lyrical color combinations and carefully orchestrating a succession of bloom from late January to November. The gardens and landscape surrounding the museum are not a botanical collection, but rather an artistic composition that captures a significant period in the history of American horticulture.

Passion is a key to success in whatever you pursue. Having a few nickels in your pocket, a retinue of gardeners at your beck and call, and your name being du Pont doesn’t hurt. While they had to wait decades for these marvels to mature, you may go wander, delight, and be inspired while leaving the heavy lifting to others. 

Captions

Mt. Cuba: Under the dappled light of mature native hardwood trees at the Mt. Cuba Center is the perfect setting for a bench. From this vantage point you are surrounded by flowering plants from ephemerals to native shrubs, trees, and fragrant perennials.

Nemours: The view to the far end of the Long Walk with the Temple of Diana at Nemours is reminiscent of the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris. The marble balustrade and steps with enormous planters leading to raked gravel paths around manicured lawns punctuated with topiaried trees in jardinières all come together to create one of the most amazing private gardens.   

Winterthur: Winterthur has the oldest collection of Kurume Azaleas in America. At the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, the first time they were displayed, Mr. du Pont was so taken that he bought every azalea. He then placed an order for more.

By Cynthia Mackay and Arthur Stampleman

We recently spent eight days, our honeymoon in fact, in a country that has no advertising. It also has no traffic jams, no air pollution, civilians are not allowed to own guns, no chain stores, almost no inequality, no drug addicts because anybody who uses drugs is thrown into jail for a year, and almost no crime. We felt safe walking at night in the most poverty-stricken areas of its four major cities.

Culture is flourishing in this country, largely because artists are paid five times more than doctors and professors. Almost every square in the capital is decked with modern sculpture. We bought quality workmanship goods (<not> made in China) at places as varied as a bus stop and a beach. The number one contributor to the struggling economy is the export of professional services. Emerging countries all over the world have its doctors and nurses manning their medical systems.

This country is Cuba. We flew there among a group of 24 on a tour in mid-January. Half our time was in Havana and the other half visiting Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, and Trinidad – a mix we found just right.

Ironically, one reason Cuba has so many admirable qualities is that this country is so poor. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 he nationalized all companies and prohibited all private enterprise, and the U.S. responded with an embargo. This threw Cuba into an economic sleep, which became an economic coma when the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew subsidies in 1991. One of our speakers remembers the taste of banana peels in his mouth, and his father foraging in the woods for roots and sending him to collect a jar of fireflies to light the house.

The other reason is that Castro — despite his flaws — was fiercely committed to Cuba’s most vulnerable citizens. Cubans hold this belief to this day. One professor at Havana University told us he wanted to “keep Cuba for the Cubans”. He would tolerate a few Starbucks, he said, but no Walmarts, which might throw smaller stores out of business. Cubans want to restore and preserve buildings in Havana, not replace them, and they have made a good start. The challenge for Cuba will be to hang on to its core values as it wakes up and begins to join the world.

When Fidel’s brother Raul took over in 2008, he began to loosen restrictions on private activity. He started by allowing Cubans to have a few guests to eat and sleep in their private houses for a fee. Result: new restaurants (<paladars>) and B&Bs are sprouting like mushrooms all over Cuba. Our exceptionally smart and articulate guide told us that since 2005 the historic city of Trinidad has gone from 250 restaurants to over 2,000.

Cuba guarantees a state job to each citizen, but the jobs do not pay a living wage. Result: highly educated Cubans are flooding into the private sector. Food cost is another area that differs from ours. Our group leader split us into six groups of 4, gave each group 50 Cuban pesos (roughly $2.25) and let us loose in a local market. Our group bought 3 pounds of rice, 2 pounds of taro root, 3 pounds of bananas, 2 pigs’ feet, one tomato, and 2 heads of lettuce. 

The bellhop in our hotel was a professor of Engineering at Havana University earning $20 a month — until he left to make real money. Taxi drivers have doctorates. We were privileged to have Professor Azukary as a speaker. He is also a H. U. professor, and a prominent diplomat (he was Cuba’s ambassador to the E. U.) and journalist (he is the founder and editor of the major dissident publication). He happily spent three hours giving our 24-member group a graduate-level seminar in Cuban-U.S. relations.

We ate only in paladars until our last night. The menu never varied. At lunch and dinner, we had squash or vegetable soup, beans and rice, a choice of what our guide termed the “Three Musketeers”, i.e. chicken, fish, or pork, and flan for dessert. We were warned Cuban food was insipid and tasteless, but the food actually was more than acceptable. And having live music, of excellent quality, at almost every meal, enlivened the experience.

We felt a bit nervous when we drove south and saw rice spread out to dry on half of the little-travelled road, but our guide assured us that the “asphalt rice” was not served to tourists. In many areas, there were more horse carts on the road than cars. Many horses are picketed to graze by the side of the road.

The brightly painted 1950s American cars make the eyes of every visitor to Cuba pop. Enterprising Cubans have refurbished them with a variety of new engines. Our guide referred to them as “Frankenstein cars” held together with “string and spit”. Boy, can they fly.

The crumbling infrastructure is a second eye-popper. We had never seen so much peeling paint or cracked plaster. One member of our group tripped on one of the universally treacherous sidewalks, injured her knees, and spent a day experiencing the packed conditions of free health care at a local clinic. One of the reasons families are so close is that many generations live crammed into packed apartments.

Aside from the ones in “five-star” (read: “three at best”) hotels, public bathrooms do not have toilet paper, toilet seats, soap, or paper towels. Private enterprise has resulted in enterprising ladies who sit outside the bathrooms near tourist areas. For one CUC (one dollar) they will hand out toilet paper, and flush by pouring a bucket of water in the bowl afterwards.

We will never forget the lovely Cubans we met. An 85-year-old fisherman who once ran errands for Ernest Hemingway. A woman who, for 31 years, has rolled famed Cuban cigars. The spunky young dancers of the Havana Queens, an independent dance troupe inspired by street dancers. The children who were plucked from abusive homes and are training to become circus acrobats. The Jewish man who acts as rabbi, moil, and kosher butcher for the main Havana synagogue. The naturalist at Zapata National Park who is trying to preserve the endemic Cuban crocodile.

Few countries in the world welcome U.S. citizens as warmly as this small, poor, harmless country. Cuba is changing so fast that every guidebook will be out of date after a year. We hope Cuba will develop in a way that keeps its Cuban values intact.

Captions

  1. A modern sculpture of a nude woman astride a rooster, symbol of male machismo, sits prominently in an historic square in Havana.
  2. The home of a former sugar baron in Cienfugos

5. Tour group in fleet of 1950s cars

6. The honeymooning authors, Cynthia Mackay and Arthur Stampleman

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