Garden Variety: Explore the Brandywine River Valley
The Brandywine River Valley countryside inspires history buffs, artists, and green thumbs.
At first glance, the banks of Brandywine Creek seem to contain not much more than reeds. But as I paddle past, a bird slowly emerges from its hiding place, stretching its body until it is nearly the size of the kayak before taking off with a flap of its massive wings. And then the great blue heron is gone, sailing downstream on the breeze.
After a few days of exploring the Brandywine Valley in southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, I realize the bird is not unlike the Brandywine itself. Concealed by tilting trees, and at a remove from roads, the creek (also known as the Brandywine River) can be invisible. But it’s beautiful, if one knows where to look.
And the secret might be getting out. In 2013 President Obama used the Antiquities Act to create First State National Monument. A year later, Congress approved an expansion of the site as a national park, ending Delaware’s long and somewhat ignominious reign as the only state in the country without a major National Park Service site. The largest of the seven unconnected properties that make up First State National Historical Park is the 1,100-acre Beaver Valley parcel, which offers almost 2 miles of woodsy Brandywine frontage that crosses the border into Pennsylvania.
While the rare chance to see a national park in its infancy is not one to pass up, I’m also here to see the area’s lavish gardens, many built for multimillionaires such as the ubiquitous du Ponts. On the surface, engineered gardens might appear to have little in common with the creek’s tangled banks. But to me the two are connected, with the tamed landscape being something of an homage to the wild country European settlers encountered when they bushwhacked their way ashore.
Those expecting to have a Yellowstone-like experience at the work-in-progress First State National Historical Park might leave a bit disappointed. Rangers are about as few and far between as brown national park signs. On my October 2015 visit, Fort Christina in Wilmington is closed to visitors, although it’s since been reopened for summer tours. In 1638, Swedish and Finnish explorers, on the hunt for furs, tobacco, and grain, planted a flag there for the colony of New Sweden, which later grew to encompass parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The colony only lasted until 1655, which may explain why America’s longer-lived English, German, and Spanish settlements often overshadow it.
I have better luck in the city of New Castle, a few miles south of Wilmington on the Delaware River. 18th- and 19th-century Federal, Georgian, and Italianate gems cluster around a leafy green, with few signs of the modern world. Brightly colored front doors protected by shutters face herringbone-patterned brick sidewalks; narrow alleys pay off in tucked-away benches and lawns.
The national park site in New Castle includes the circa 1732 New Castle Court House Museum, part of a National Historic Landmark district containing more than 500 buildings. Another downtown highlight, the 22-room Read House, was completed in 1804 by George Read II, son of George Read, who at one point or another held just about every important Delaware government position: governor, State Supreme Court chief justice, United States senator. Formal gardens, which feature neat paths lined with boxwoods and pear trees, were added in the mid-1800s. Close by, and in full view, lies the glittering river.
Taverns used to crowd this once-busy port. But New Castle has been much sleepier, residents say, since the nearby Delaware Memorial Bridge opened in 1951, which precipitated the closing of the city’s New Jersey ferry. Today, there’s just a smattering of shops and restaurants.
The park service is still considering options for a visitor center at First State National Historical Park. One candidate is the Sheriff’s House in New Castle, a brownstone Greek Revival with jail cells, one of which is still visible from the outside. But its interior is “severely deteriorated,” says Ethan McKinley, First State’s park superintendent, whose resume includes stints at Glacier, Mt. Rainier, and Yosemite national parks. A farmhouse in Beaver Valley is also in the running.
Regardless of the visitor center’s final location, creating a place to welcome tourists is a priority. “We don’t want the experience to be fractured,” McKinley says.
Minutes from Beaver Valley, Longwood Gardens sweeps across 1,070 acres of meadows, forests, and obsessively tended beds. The Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, property also offers a horticultural fun house of a conservatory.
With so much land to go around, Longwood feels comfortably empty in the fall, even though the parking lot looks full. And in some sections, such as Peirce’s Park, I don’t see another person at all, which means ample time to contemplate how its beeches, sweet gums, and hemlocks played such a key role in establishing Longwood.
Once home to members of the Lenape tribe, the land was purchased by a Quaker farming family, the Peirces, from William Penn himself. In the late 1700s, twins Joshua and Samuel Peirce began assembling trees from up and down the heavily logged East Coast and planting them in evenly spaced rows as if displays in a museum.
But by the early 20th century another family, the Bevinses, owned the land. In 1906, they signed an agreement to sell the Peirces’ carefully curated trees for lumber. This arrangement prompted an alarmed Pierre S. du Pont, the eventual chairman and CEO of the prosperous DuPont gunpowder and chemical company, to step in and snap up the property. Over the next decades, a spare-few-expenses expansion followed, and in the 1950s the site began offering formal tours to the public.
During my visit to Longwood, the blue-tiled pools in the fountain-laden Italian Water Garden are dry for the season. The Flower Garden Walk is vivid, though, with a mix of ornamental peppers, purple Mexican bush sage, and pink chrysanthemums.
Meanwhile, in the 4-acre conservatory, a maze of contiguous pathways leads to themed areas such as the South American Cascade Garden, a rain forest with waterfalls, cliffs, and spiky red bromeliads. In other chambers, huge orbs covered in mums dangle from the ceiling. (Longwood’s annual Chrysanthemum Festival, with more than 20,000 of the autumn-flowering plants, is in full swing.)
Outside, another garden—a beer garden—is serving specially brewed seasonal ales from the local Victory Brewing Company, flavored with Longwood’s own lemons and honey. Also on the menu are pretzels, bratwurst, and pulled pork sandwiches. For a fuller meal off-property, visitors might want to consider driving 15 minutes to Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, for the Terrain Garden Cafe. The cafe offers farm-to-table fine dining inside Terrain at Glen Mills, a high-end garden center and lifestyle emporium run by the founders of retail giants Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie.
Terrain has its own nursery, and its dirt paths, buckets of gourds, and a blanket-stacked fire pit make me almost forget the nearby Staples store. As I enjoy soup made with mushrooms from nearby Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (a mycological mecca), and sausage-stuffed quail, candles flicker in Bell jars on the cafe’s windowsills, concealing passing traffic.
Other du Pont family gardens in the Brandywine Valley include the popular and stately Winterthur and Nemours. More casual is the Mt. Cuba Center, a botanical garden set around a former du Pont mansion (naturally) that today protects more than 500 acres of land in addition to 20 acres of formal gardens. Gentle paths weave through tulip trees towering over ferns, in a scene that could have been lifted from the Brandywine’s banks.
If the du Ponts seem more green-thumbed than other aristocrats, it’s no accident. Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, the patriarch, worked as an economist for Louis XVI and was so enthralled by his boss’s gardens at Versailles, historians say, that he emulated the designs for his own gardens at his home in France.
At Eleutherian Mills, the 1803 family homestead that sits on a hill above the Brandywine, his son Eleuthère Irénée, an industrialist and self-proclaimed botanist, created a lush, formal, four-square version. In the 1850s, three more squares were added, one specifically for roses. Re-created in the 1970s after some fallow decades, the parterre garden yields sunflowers, tobacco, pumpkins, and other crops that flourished throughout the 19th century, says Richard Heiss, a museum guide at the Hagley Museum and Library, which now owns the property.
Eleuthère Irénée “really just needed a garden to provide food. All he had to do was to lay rows of seed,” Heiss says. “But he didn’t.” And by introducing the formal French style, Heiss adds, the du Ponts created an outdoor space unique to the area at the time.
If seeds were a means for the du Ponts to celebrate nature, then pencils, watercolors, and oils played that role for artists. Based on the 19th-century landscapes produced by the Brandywine School (an arts movement that took root there), the creek provided plenty of subject matter.
Over the course of my daylong kayak trip, which winds from the Northbrook Canoe Company in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to a picnic area in Beaver Valley, it is still easy to imagine I am paddling through a painting. Meandering around wide, muddy bends, the creek reveals houses made of cobblestones, a red covered bridge, and a toppled tree with bleached roots that resemble whale bones.
Also on my route is the Brandywine River Museum of Art, which displays paintings in an expanded and renovated old gristmill. After I’ve spent several hours on the creek, some of the museum’s works seem instantly familiar to me, such as Edward Moran’s On the Brandywine and Edmund Lewis’ Scene in the Chester Valley.
Multiple generations of Wyeths, the well-known local artist clan that’s heavily represented at the museum, must have drawn inspiration from the terrain, as well. Andrew Wyeth’s Pennsylvania Landscape, for example, depicts stone buildings, a gnarled tree, and grassy pastures. The museum also owns and operates the Andrew Wyeth Studio, a converted 1875 schoolhouse where Wyeth worked for almost 70 years. (The studio, as well as the museum’s N.C. Wyeth House & Studio, is a member of the National Trust’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program.)
Today, the Brandywine, with all its hidden charms, still keeps a grip on painters. The day I visit the museum, local resident John Steel sits on the lawn there, dabbing brush against canvas. Around him, light slants through silver maples and sycamores. “It’s ever-changing,” Steel says. “That’s what makes it so unusual.”