By: Katie Mobley
As one of the great gardens of the world, Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, USA, is a place rooted in beauty and horticultural expertise, where garden design, horticulture, education, and the arts interplay. It’s also a place cultivated by its dedication to learn from the natural world, preserve beauty, and in turn share that beauty with as many as possible ... a commitment illustrated by the long and storied history of Nymphaea at Longwood.
Founded in 1906 by Pierre S. du Pont, Longwood is an expression of all du Pont found inspiring, meaningful, and beautiful. A visionary in the field of public gar-dens, du Pont drew his inspiration from his experiences and travels and today his innovative spirit, passion for knowledge, and respect for the land collectively form the principles that guide Longwood’s horticultural activities. Today, Longwood welcomes more than 1.5 million guests each year. In addition to serving as a leader in horticultural excellence, it’s also a premier performance venue within the Philadelphia region and a center of learning with world-class educational opportunities for both children and adults.
While Longwood stewards a living plant collection of more than 10,000 taxa, it also continually seeks to expand its collection while caring for its plants and sharing plant materials with other horticultural institutions. Throughout the years, Longwood has prioritized certain groups of plants, based on their importance to Longwood’s overall collection and to the preservation of its horticultural heritage and legacy. Designed as core collections and ranging in focus from boxwood to orchid, they receive special attention with regard to their development, management, and display ... and Longwood’s Nymphaea collection is one such collection.
Longwood’s Nymphaea collection spans more than 1,200 individual plants with nearly 100 different taxa. The majority consists of hybrids, especially non-hardy tropical types, and containing many historic American hybrids, resulting from Longwood’s historic collection of Nymphaea hybrids and working with such well-known experts in the field such as the late George H. Pring, the late Perry Slocum, and Ken Landon. This diverse location is proudly showcased in one of Longwood’s most iconic spaces. The summer Waterlily Display — a series of five dramatic pools with 18,000 square feet of display space designed by Sir Peter Shepheard — is tucked into a protective court-yard accessed through Longwood’s 4.5 acre Conservatory. Typically open from late May through mid-October, this stunning outdoor garden showcases aquatics plants from all over the world as storied as they are beautiful, including one of the stars of the show ... majestic Victoria, a massive, architectural water-platter steeped in folklore and intrigue.
Longwood’s long history of growing, hybridizing, and displaying Nymphaea dates back to 1957 under the leadership of the late horticultural icon Patrick Nutt, a founding member of the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society and Longwood staff member from 1957 until 1995. A consummate plantsman, Nutt spent years developing Longwood’s spectacular Victoria display, developing and cultivating techniques to grow Victoria in captivity, and garnering an international reputation for his work with aquatic plants. Since 1991, Tim Jennings, an understudy and friend of Nutt’s, has served as the curator of the collection. Nationally recognized as an expert in the field, Jennings is known for his teaching on Nymphaea and skillfully guides the growth and longevity of Longwood’s Nymphaea collection.
Under Jennings’ care, Longwood makes every effort to grow only the highest quality Nymphaea and strives to keep improving through research ... but while research is critical to this collection’s viability, Jennings’ real objective as collection curator is quite simple: “It’s about getting as many people interested and intrigued by these natural wonders as we can.”
In its Waterlily Display Longwood proudly showcases the mighty Victoria, which is of particular importance as the hybrid Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’ was created at Longwood Gardens by Nutt in 1961. The first garden to successfully hybridize Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana, Longwood has repeated this hand-pollinated cross every year since 1960, growing new plants from seeds indoors each mid-January so a new crop can go on display for public viewing starting each year in late May.
The beauty of Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’ can be seen far beyond Longwood’s Waterlily Display, as for the last five decades Longwood has shared its seeds with more than 140 gardens around the world ... resulting in not only the sharing of seed that is not readily available commercially, but allowing for even more public garden visitors worldwide—from Missouri Botanic Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - to see Victoria firsthand.
Dozens of these garden recipients have been able to germinate Longwood’s seed and in term widen Longwood’s educational reach, inspiring a growing global community of learners. In addition, Longwood distributes large quantities of water-platter seed to the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society for distribution amongst its members, further supporting the widespread education of this amazing plant ... and that, in itself, is a beautiful thing.
About the Author Katie Mobley is the Senior Marketing and Communications Specialist, Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA.
Reprinted with permission from International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society Water Garden Journal, Volume 35, Number 4 (Winter 2020), Pages 35 – 37.