In 1906 industrialist Pierre S. du Pont purchased a farm near Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, to save a collection of rare and historic trees. Conservation was the inspiration for purchasing the land that would become Longwood Gardens; since that time, plant conservation practices have been a tradition at Longwood.
Over the past decade, we have sought to broaden our longstanding efforts and more actively promote preservation and stewardship around the globe. One of our most successful efforts has been our Orchid Conservation Program.
The overarching goal of the program is to elucidate the horticultural requirements for orchid species, particularly native species, through research. Propagation and production protocols are developed to grow these orchids for in situ and ex situ conservation, display, and to expand public understanding of the importance of plant conservation through education, interpretation, and display. Currently, hundreds of orchid taxa are in the program, and this number is growing.
- To answer fundamental research questions about orchid seed germination and growth
- To propagate, cultivate, and display orchids responsibly
- To engage in restoration efforts by providing seedlings back to the natural lands where the original seed was collected
- To expand public understanding of the importance of plant conservation
Why orchids? For starters, with more than 25,000 species in the world, orchids comprise the largest group within the plant kingdom. (Darwin himself was fascinated with these plants—after publishing On the Origin of the Species he followed up with a formal paper on orchid diversity and the possibilities for natural selection.) Given their evolutionary and ecological complexity, the presence of orchids within a given ecosystem indicates one that is healthy and balanced. When they disappear, we have a good reason for concern. Climate change, invasive species, habitat loss, and a booming white-tailed deer population have decimated many orchid populations in southeast Pennsylvania and across the region. As one of the great display gardens of the world, it is incumbent upon us to meet these challenges with the same spirit of our founder, Pierre S. du Pont: with vision, innovation, research, and passion.
Collaboration and partnership is crucial to our mission of conservation of orchids not only in Pennsylvania but across Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and the US. We are currently working to determine the status of all orchids historically found throughout Pennsylvania, and study them in the field and in our lab to better understand their long term conservation needs. From land management agencies to private landowners to public gardens, we share our findings and celebrate our successes together. We are proud to work with partners throughout the world, and locally, including:
- The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
- Native American Orchid Conservation Center
- The Brandywine Conservancy and Museum
A Bit of History
We are home to one of the largest orchid collections in the world, with roots in Pierre S. and Alice du Pont's interest in this dynamic species. When they began construction on the Conservatory in 1919, they set aside a portion of the glass house specifically to display orchids … even though they had not grown nor collected orchids before. Soon after the Conservatory was completed, owing to the new space afforded by the expansive glasshouse, they began purchasing specimens from nurseries in the US and abroad. In 1924, they hired a caretaker for their new collection and, over the years, amassed an impressive library about these plants. In 1923, Pierre purchased 100 each of Galearis spectabilis, Platanthera blephariglottis, P. ciliaris, and p. psycodes (then placed in the genus Habenaria) from Mr. E.C. Robbins in Pineola, NC—a purchase of native orchids that would become an inspiration for present-day orchid research conservation efforts.
Alice’s interest in orchids grew. She and Pierre were among 100 charter members of the American Orchid Society (AOS), which was founded in 1921 and whose mission, to this day, is “to promote and support the passion for orchids through education, conservation, and research.” In 1924, Alice was elected vice president of the AOS, and she served in that position until her death in 1944, at which time Pierre took over the office of vice president. A collection that started with Pierre and Alice’s enthusiasm has blossomed in the decades since, representing our standards of excellence and beauty, as well as upholding our founders’ legacy of innovation at Longwood.