Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin is number one on a list of North America’s best botanical gardens.
The former du Pont estate, which focuses on native plants and ecological gardening, bested the likes of the Chicago Botanic Garden and New York Botanic Garden in USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards.
“First and foremost, what it says is that a garden that is dedicated to native plants can be as robust and as exciting and appealing as any botanical garden that you’re going to find anywhere,” said Jeff Downing, executive director at Mt. Cuba.
“So Mt. Cuba Center being a garden of native plants can be on the same page and the same stature as those renowned gardens that we were competing against … The fact that we won this puts us in that same class and allows us to keep advocating our mission of adopting greater use of our own local flora for the benefit of our ecology.”
Mt. Cuba won because so many fans voted for it, Downing said. The center also got support from the surrounding community and other garden and conservation devotees.
The home at Mt. Cuba was built in the 1930s on rolling farm fields by Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland, who started turning those fields into gardens featuring native plants.
As it transitioned into a public garden in the early 2002s, it only allowed admission by appointment. Then in 2005, Mt. Cuba started its wildly popular Wildflower Celebration each spring, which allowed people to walk through gardens on one day — and receive a free plant from the greenhouse there.
Seven years ago, it began to open up during summer months and then to offer memberships that allow patrons to wander the grounds most of the year.
Downing credited the win partially to Mt. Cuba’s opening up.
“Over the past seven years we went from having one day a year, and that was our Wildflower Celebration in April, to being open for general admission five days a week from the beginning of April to after Thanksgiving,” Downing said. “So we’ve really raised our visibility in our local community and become better known among that community of botanical gardens in this area.”
Mt. Cuba is one of more than 30 public gardens within 30 miles of Philadelphia, called the America’s Garden Capital.
While Mt. Cuba long has offered classes on all aspects of gardening, and brought in top-tier authors and experts to talk about gardening, it also tests plants to see which perform best in a variety of weathers and which attract the most pollinators.
That trial garden, situated where the Copeland’s cutting garden was, today is trialing New York Ironweed, sedge, coneflowers and hydrangea, among other things. After three years, the horticulturists write up a report and make it available to nurseries and to the public.
While many plants are growing beautifully, there are some evident barren spots.
“One of the aspects of this trial is because it’s three years long, it’s sort of like ‘Survivor,'” Downing said. “If a plant doesn’t survive, we will replant it once, and if it dies again, it’s out.”
In the coneflowers, he points out a double coneflower that is beautiful and stylish with an exaggerated seed head. The flowers become so heavy, the plant has flopped to the ground. Worse than that, Downing said, bees and other pollinators don’t like it because it doesn’t make pollen.
Then he walks to the rows of hydrangeas, where some mophead plants have huge luscious blooms, but just a few bees. Steps away is a lacecap hydrangea found naturally in the area. The flat open flowers are covered in hundreds of bees dancing from flower to flower.
“If you wanted to plant a plant for the value to pollinators, this is about as good a plant as you’re going to get,” Downing said. “These bees are so happy that they don’t even know we’re here.”
The difference is that the pollen and nectar is easily accessible in the flat-topped flowers, he said.
In the last quarter century, gardeners everywhere have turned to native plants for their region because they survive droughts and fight diseases better than non-natives. Mt. Cuba specializes in native plants indigenous to the Piedmont region, which stretches along the Eastern United States from New York to Alabama.
The gardens are home to more than 2,300 different native plants, some threatened by extinction. Surrounding the gardens are more than 1,000 acres of natural lands featuring Appalachian Piedmont landscapes, flora, and fauna.
Mt. Cuba will not rest on it laurels. It’s got ambitious plans to build what may be the world’s first net zero energy greenhouse. Downing said Mt. Cuba doesn’t know of another producing greenhouse that makes more energy than it uses.
It’s building a new guest parking lot to host a larger number of people, andm to improve accessibility around the house, and will cut down some diseased trees to create a new shady area where people can sit or picnic.
Mt. Cuba also has started selling plants at the entrance. It had hoped to have more to offer, but the COVID-19 pandemic meant staff wasn’t around to grow them.
“Some of the things we’re selling are things that we know have done well based on our own trial garden experiences,” he said. “And it helps us get more plants out in the community.”