A person in an art studio hunched over painting flowers on a large-scale white board.

Botanical Beauty, Down to a Fine Art

By Katie Testa, on

With this year’s A Longwood Christmas season, we have had so much fun not only celebrating all things retro—but also sharing the immense creativity and talents of the many, many makers behind this spectacular display. One of those makers is Senior Horticulturist Alex Correia, who hand-painted the four larger-than-life botanical murals located in and just outside of our Visitor Center, welcoming guests to the display as they first enter our Gardens. Here at Longwood, Correia typically works in the Idea Garden, a dynamic space that showcases artful botanical combinations and inspiring approaches to gardening and design. With that, it’s no surprise that she created such beautiful and dynamic pieces of art for the display. Follow along as Correia shares the inspiration behind her murals, her process creating them, and the incredibly detailed, gorgeous results—that are, in a word, inspiring. 

With a background in environmental science and a long-time interest in art, when planning her botanical murals, Correia was first inspired by vintage botanical illustrations and Christmas cards with wintery flowers and foliage. As the project progressed, she found herself also inspired by the plants themselves, previous Conservatory displays, and Longwood’s own history. Naturally, as her work at Longwood involves new ideas and solutions in horticulture, Correia came up with a creative way to welcome guests to the display, all while “responding to the space we were working in,” she shares. “As the walls of the Visitor Center are a very flat space, we always need something nearly two-dimensional in place. So, we thought to do something truly two-dimensional.”  Although two-dimensional, the color, texture, and details of the murals pop off the wall, and are complemented by three-dimensional wreaths arranged by Longwood Horticulturists Kieran Avis, Juliana Davis, and Faith Redcay, all handcrafted using such materials as ribbon, dried and preserved leaves, pinecones, berries, and more.  

Each of the arches in and near the Visitor Center feature an interior panel built by in-house carpenters, led by Senior Carpenter Joe Cornette. Special panels are used every A Longwood Christmas season, painted each year to complement the decorations. This year, the panels behind the wreaths were painted red to highlight the color palette. The additional panels built specifically for the hand-painted murals are made of Masonite—a dense and sturdy material made of compressed wood fibers that works as a smooth surface to paint on—that was then nailed to plywood. Cornette built the panels so they could be disassembled for easy transport from Correia’s workshop to the Visitor Center. 

At Correia’s request, Senior Painter David Landgrebe painted these additional panels a neutral color that would complement the Visitor Center’s lighting and give the look and feel of old paper­—calling back to her original inspiration to emulate vintage Christmas cards. The panels were prepped with a textured paint application, adding a bit more dimension to the canvases. 

A paint tray with pink, red, and white paint being stirred.

It was important to Correia to find a medium that would not only look striking and accurately match the color palette of each piece but could also withstand weather and temperature changes. Correia chose acrylic paint, a weatherproof and long-lasting paint with pigment you can build and layer. Photo by Carol Gross.

One of the four murals depicts a tall pink amaryllis (Hippeastrum ‘Gervase’) amongst paperwhite narcissus flowers (Narcissus papyraceus). Correia was inspired by paperwhite narcissus on display in the East Conservatory during last year’s A Longwood Christmas display. She paired the white flowers with a striking representation of the amaryllis, which was on display in our Gardens in 2019. 

A bunch of tall white flowers blooming.

Paperwhite narcissus on display in the East Conservatory during A Longwood Christmas in 2022. Photo by Hank Davis.

A painting of white flowers on a beige background.

Look closely at the detailed work by Correia, including shades of greens to white and gray, yellows and browns to capture the tiny paperwhite narcissus. Photo by Carol Gross.

A group of pink Amaryllis in a garden bed.

An image of a gorgeous bright pink amaryllis that Correia used as a guide in creating her mural. Photo by Judy Czeiner.

A sketch of the amaryllis in pencil.

A sketch of the amaryllis done by Correia, inspired by the photo. Photo by Carol Gross.

A mural inset in an arch of pink amaryllis and white flowers.

The complete mural on display just outside the Visitor Center, set in one of the arches and paired beside a handmade wreath. Photo by Addie Spicer.

Another one of Correia’s hand-painted murals is of the branches, shiny green leaves, seed pods, and white blooms of the southern magnolia tree. Magnolia grandiflora, a gorgeous evergreen tree, is a common plant used in outdoor landscapes during the winter months. 


A mural inset in an arch of a magnolia branch flowers.

The finished mural in the Visitor Center looks beautiful next to one of the wreaths as they both have a similar color palette. Photo by Carol Gross.

A painting of  a large white magnolia flower.

A close up of the magnolia mural in-progress. Notice how with only one coat of paint, the pigment is still a bit translucent. A second layer of acrylic is what makes these murals start to come to life. Photo by Carol Gross.

A garden bed filled with red berries and magnolia trees.

Correia was inspired by magnolia trees we’ve had on display in the Exhibition Hall in our Conservatory, like the one here from A Longwood Christmas in 2017. Photo by Hank Davis.

As a horticulturist, Correia wanted to look to Longwood’s own unique cultivars, such as Ilex × attenuata ‘Longwood Gold’—a yellow-berried holly—to find inspiration for one of the murals in the Visitor Center. Longwood originally received this holly in the early 1970s as an open-pollinated seed from Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. One of the plants grown from the seed turned out to have yellow fruit and Longwood selected this plant in 1976 for its fruit color and superior cold tolerance. Notice how, in Correia’s completed mural, she perfectly captured the striking yellow berries. 

A branch of yellow berries.

Ilex × attenuata ‘Longwood Gold’. Photo by Richard Donham.

A mural of a branch of yellow berries inset in an arch.

This completed mural is inspired by Ilex × attenuata ‘Longwood Gold’. Photo by Carol Gross.

“Working with the scale of the Visitor Center arches was a challenge,” says Correia. The subject in the murals both had to fill the space, but also create an interesting composition that pairs well with the wreaths on display and the Visitor Center's atmosphere. To hand-paint the image of Ilex × attenuata ‘Longwood Gold’—and to hand-paint several other murals—Correia used a projector to blow up images that she wanted to paint onto the panel. With the image projected, she would trace a rough sketch of the botanicals onto the panel, arranging the composition how she envisioned. 

For the fourth botanical mural, Correia wanted to look back into Longwood’s past at the historic varieties of plants that we have had on display through the years. Correia took inspiration from varieties of poinsettias that Longwood displayed in our Conservatory in the 1960s, when poinsettias were grown to look a bit wilder, with long, leggy stems. Now, plant breeding has preferred smaller, denser plants, which can be seen on display today. 

A person in an art studio setting up a light projector.

Correia sets up her projector to blow up the image of poinsettias on display in 1963. Photo by Carol Gross.

An indoor shot of the Longwood Conservatory featuring red and yellow poinsettias.

For her poinsettia mural, Correia was inspired by this is photo of A Longwood Christmas in 1963, which features an interesting variety of poinsettia, tall and spread out.

A floral image being projected onto a white wall.

Correia would first adjust the projection until it was at the scale she wanted. She would then begin sketching and painting on the panel using the image as a guide. Photo by Carol Gross.

A person painting poinsettia leaves onto a white background.

Here, Correia adds the first coat of acrylic paint to her sketch, using different shades of red to capture the shadows and dimensions of the plant. Photo by Carol Gross.

A close up of the details of leaves in a painting of poinsettias.

Take a look at the intricate details of the poinsettia mural. Photo by Laurie Carrozzino.

A mural inset in an arch of painted red poinsettia.

The completed mural in the Visitor Center, paired next to a wreath. Photo by Carol Gross.

The resulting murals are not only strikingly beautiful, but also a thoughtful way to showcase unique Longwood cultivars and Longwood displays from years past—and we are so inspired by each and every detail of Correia’s work. 

Editor’s Note: Want to explore your own creativity with Longwood? With our hands-on class and workshop experiences in all areas from creative arts to floral design, you can develop new skills, create something beautiful to bring home, and have fun while you learn. One such class is our upcoming Flower of the Month: Amaryllis class where you can create a floral arrangement using the same beautiful flower featured on one of the handmade murals. Registration is open now. 

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