Travis Beck remembers his first visit to the garden at Mount Cuba Center. He asked the tour docent if he could go back onto the trail to take some pictures of the wildflowers he had just seen. “There was this look of horror on her face,” he recalls.
Back then, the wooded hillside garden was the private playground of its owner, a du Pont by marriage named Pamela Copeland. She had inherited the dynasty’s love of gardening on a grand scale, but what began for her and her husband, Lammot du Pont Copeland, as a formal property in the 1930s became increasingly naturalistic as the decades progressed.
Passionate about nature conservation, she allowed horticultural professionals to visit even if, as Beck found out, it was on a rather tight rein.
In the 14 years since Pamela Copeland’s death, Mount Cuba Center has shifted from being the private estate of an ecologically minded philanthropist to a public garden of delight and enlightenment. It is worth a visit at least once in the spring, and preferably twice, in mid-April and again in mid-May. It also has peak moments in late summer and the fall.
This transition was orchestrated by Copeland herself, who felt that if you could show people the beauty of native plants in their natural setting, they would become foot soldiers in the fight to preserve the countryside. Like the greater Washington area, the Delaware Valley has seen much development since the 1970s, but the Copelands amassed 582 acres for the estate in Hockessin, Del., a few miles north of Wilmington.
The Copelands lived in a refined red brick Colonial Revival house — now the visitor center and staff quarters — surrounded by a formal walled garden. This is Mount Cuba’s heart, but its soul is in the hillside shade garden that was created later and that just seems to get better with the years. This is no accident; a beautiful and balanced woodland garden requires the skill of a forester, the mind of an ecologist and the eye of a gardener. Enter, or reenter, Travis Beck. “The gardens have to be inspiring,” he said, “and that means beautiful, but engaging in all sorts of other ways.”
He returned to Mount Cuba in 2013, this time not as a touring acolyte but as director of horticulture. He came from the New York Botanical Garden, and he is the author of a lauded book aimed at design professionals, “The Principles of Ecological Design.”
Between the formal gardens and a series of naturalistic ponds, the Copelands created a half-mile loop that seems much longer as it meanders through woodland and meadow on its way to the water features. Its tangents include a path through a trillium garden of rare species and forms, as well as a path through towering and majestic tulip trees. These woods house precious flora, but there is a clear aesthetic at play. This is very much a crafted garden of indigenous plants, not a place where they happen to grow.
This means adding plants so that they read in the landscape with others, and removing some seedlings to bring definition to a prodigious colony of, say, greater celandine or columbines. “We want to create a loose quality as if you have just happened upon them but we also want to create a discipline,” he said. “A lot of it comes down to the touch of the gardeners, in their editing.” Where there are holes in the overall effect, Beck and his team focus on areas up to 1,000 square feet, working and planting the site to give it a horticultural gloss.
With the onset of warmer weather, its character shifts abruptly in midspring. When Beck led me through the garden recently, the last of the bloodroots was flowering, and the Virginia bluebells, trilliums and greater celandine blanketed the woodland floor in bold sweeps of yellows, blues and whites. Bellworts, yellow-flowered and somewhat coarse, stood among other robust perennials, including twinleafs, Solomon’s seal and ferns.
You will find pretty patches of rue anemone and false rue anemone, with their dainty starry flowers, and one impressive drift of Quaker ladies (Houstonia caerulea) in a moss garden. Such delicate flowers are, ironically, the product of decades of being allowed to seed and spread.
In the past few days, deeper into leafy spring, the garden has taken on a different look, with flowering dogwoods and a slew of lovely deciduous azaleas, so much more elegant than the usual magenta excess. Mount Cuba’s gems include the pinkshell, pinxterbloom and Alabama azaleas, in soft pinks and whites. Since early May, the woodland phlox, foamflower and fernleaf phacelia have provided color on the woodland floor.
The ponds offer a clearing in the woods and create a popular place to rest before returning to the house. The water edges are full of interesting flora as well, including the exquisite aquatic aroid golden club, along with the rare bog plant named swamppink.
The ponds themselves are alive with countless thousands of black tadpoles, not much bigger than peppercorns. They are the progeny of American toads, and soon will emerge in hordes. The toads will eat slugs and in turn be eaten by snakes.
“Everyone can come here and see something that interests them and moves them to a higher level,” Beck said. He was referring to gardening, but he might have been talking about life in general.
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