The late Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland founded their estate, Mt. Cuba in Delaware, in 1935. During the 1960s, their concern for the fast-disappearing native wildflowers of the Piedmont region prompted them to start wildflower gardening. Today, as a nonprofit organization, Mt. Cuba Center’s historic formal gardens around the house contrast with a beautiful 630-acre estate of rural meadows and native woodlands. In keeping with the founders’ philosophy, Mt. Cuba’s woodlands are strictly native, and the trees are deciduous. A canopy of tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) mixes with white ash (Fraxinus americana) and red oak (Quercus rubra). The shrub layer is made up of many species, including rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), pink shell azalea (R. vaseyi), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), fothergillas, Alabama snow-wreath (Neviusia alabamensis) and box huckleberry (Gaylussacia frondosum), to mention just a few. At floor level is a rich carpet of Canadian ginger (Asarum canadense), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), jackin-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), and hundreds of species of wildflowers and ferns.

(Photo by: Rob Cardillo)


Consider time and space — Director Rick Lewandowski understands that gardeners look to Mt. Cuba Center for ideas. “A key point we drive home is the rich layering in both space and time that occurs in a high-quality woodland garden,” he says. “The gardener needs to think holistically rather than linearly about the relationships of plants with each other in the garden.” The most obvious example of layering in space is a hierarchy of plants that goes from canopy to ground layer, as described above. Layering in time, Lewandowski explains, “addresses the changing seasons and focuses on integrating plants to ensure interest all year. At Mt. Cuba, spring flowers like large merry bells (Uvularia grandiflora) or rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) are followed by creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) and Allegheny foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia), then by a profusion of trillium species and ferns like maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum).”

A flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is spectacular in spring. (Photo by: Rob Cardillo)

Let there be light — “Gardens change, particularly woodland gardens,” says Lewandowski. “Sunny spots become shady and vice versa, so the woodland gardener should always be aware of the changing conditions and adapt to them.” An awareness of these natural changes teaches that the manipulation of light is central to the design of a woodland garden. “We ‘gap-prune’ our canopy and limb up trees,” Lewandowski explains. “Both techniques, when done properly, allow additional filtered light into the forest, which encourages mid- and lower layers of the garden to thrive and become rich in diversity and beauty.”

At Mt. Cuba Center four man-made ponds connected by a stream provide the ideal conditions for a large range of ferns and moisture-loving native plants of the Piedmont region. (Photo by: Rob Cardillo)

Invest in the infrastructure — If you are lucky enough to own some, mature woodland provides a great context for developing a garden. But Lewandowski says, “It is important to appreciate the need to guarantee succession (ongoing tree cover) by continuing to plant. At Mt. Cuba Center, the tall, straight trunks of tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) have been an important part of the cathedral-like quality of the forest. We try to ensure that there are always young tulip trees growing to replace older ones. Furthermore, we are always planting a range of other species, including sour gum (Nyssa sylvatica), Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera), American yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea), plus many species of oaks, magnolia and hickory.”

Visit or call 302-239-4244 for more information.

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