A glorious exhibit celebrates flowers and fragrance – and brings sense and scents together.
Celebrating the eternal bond of flowers and fragrance, “Making Sense: The Art and Passion of Fragrance” is delighting visitors to Longwood Gardens, one of America’s masterpiece horticultural gardens. Beds of flowers are always wonderful to look at and usually please the nose as well. Add touch, taste and mind-captivating information and this exhibit tracing the history and lore of perfume engages every one of the senses.
A giant lush topiary “perfume bottle” at the entrance to the 300 landscaped acres points visitors toward the Conservatory, where posies and posters pair up to show the source, science and allure of perfumes. Four-and-a-half acres under glass, Longwood’s Conservatory is a spectacular indoor garden, subdivided into different themed plots showing palms, roses, water lilies, orchids. Now transformed into a “museum for the senses,” it’s a place where guests experience firsthand the plants at the heart of the fragrance story.
“SMELL ME” signs nestled within the flower beds invite visitors to bend down and sniff fragrant plants along the paths – hyacinth, freesia, jasmine, magnolia. Interspersed posters teach aspects of horticulture and illustrate methods of extracting fragrance: distilling, crushing or laboriously pressing blossoms into a vat that absorbs the odor. Guests can touch fuzzy, mint-like patchouli plants and see the growing herbs, which could be made into the basil-flavored sorbet served in the restaurant.
In the Conservatory’s Music Room, visitors press the plunger on “scent machine” gadgets that puff fragrant powders of scent directly into the nostrils. The scent machines introduce basic component smells: rose, bergamot, cedar, ylang ylang. Displays illustrate how perfumes are composed in a three-tier “pyramid,” with short-lived, quickly evaporating “head” notes at the top, longer-lasting “heart” notes in the middle and supported by heavier base or “soul” notes at the bottom, which can linger for a day or two after the higher notes evaporate.
A U-shaped blonde wood console replicates a Perfume Organ, the perfume creator’s work station, lined with tiers of 128 bottles in various scents. Master perfumers call on a mental inventory of thousands of distinct aromatic notes to concoct mixes of plant, animal and synthetic ingredients into such signature fragrances, such as Srancois Coty’s “Chypre,” Jacques Guerlain’s “Shalimar,” Edmond Roudnitska’s lily of the valley-scented “Diorissimo.”
Visitors learn to classify the seven “families of perfume” – from citrus and floral to woody and leather – and finally have the opportunity to choose their own favorite head, heart and soul scents, which are blended into a personal fragrance to carry home on a scented card.
Ever since 1907, when Francois Coty hired Rene Lalique to design bottles for his fragrances because “a perfume needs to attract the eye as much as the nose,” unique bottle designs have appealed to collectors. More than 150 historic bottles are on display in a mirrored triptych case enabling viewers to see all sides of classics flasks such as the Mae West “corset” of Schiaparelli’s “Shocking” and the square holograph bottle created for Michael Jackson’s signature fragrance in 2000.
A “Scent Seekers” family project provides a colorful booklet and map guiding guests through the conservatory to ten informative poster-and-scent-release stations. One stop focuses on myrrh, which represented the scent of the gods to ancient Egyptians. Other stations describe “rose rustlers” who search for dying heirloom varieties, chemists who seek scents such as vanilla to duplicate in the laboratory; there’s even a chance to sniff the amorphophallus plant that attracts housefly pollinators by giving off the odor of “rotten meat.”
Founded by Pierre S. DuPont to inspire people through excellence in horticulture, education and the arts, Longwood Gardens originated as a working farm on land that was purchased from William Penn. Now a third of its 1,000 acres have been transformed into vistas and vignettes. Throughout the year concerts are held in the fountain-graced Open Air Theater, where John Philip Sousa once conducted. BB King, Joan Armatrading, Shawn Colvin and Rufus Wainwright are upcoming performers. For dining, the formal Terrace Restaurant has devised a “Fragrance Tasting Menu” with elderflower vinaigrette on the salad and blueberry truffle honey flavoring the crusted halibut entree.
Once a month, “Fragrant Fridays” feature performances, fountain shows, sampling and activities focusing on Marvelous Mint, Hummmmm, Chocolate, Lovely Lavender, Honey Harvest and Very Vanilla, Spice It Up, and even Ewwww Stinky. Longwood is open all 365 days and, as the year progresses, the flowers in bloom will change with the seasons proceeding from spring’s lilacs, lilies and narcissus to rose and scented geraniums in the summer. Fall celebrates sage, mint, lemon, rosemary and “popcorn cassia,” known for its popcorn-like smell. Pungent paperwhites and woodsy pines, juniper and fir will round out the winter making it tempting to visit more than once.
How to Get There
Located outside Kennett Square, PA, Longwood is about 30 miles south of Philadelphia and equidistant between New York City and Washington, DC. The garden is 12 miles from the Wilmington, DE, AMTRAK stop. Budget, Avis and Enterprise rental cars have offices within the Wilmington depot; there are taxis at the curb; or shuttles can be arranged through visitwilmingtonde.com/visitors-and-residents/transportation.
Returning to Wilmington, spend the night in the refurbished historic Hotel DuPont, established by the same Pierre S. DuPont who founded Longwood. Dine in the hotel’s stately mahogany-paneled Green Room Restaurant sampling mushroom salad and crusted sea bass served on crunchy salsify noodles. Catch a full-scale Broadway road show in the theater’s historic playhouse where “Xanadu,” “Chorus Line” and “Hairspray” are recent productions. Combining visits to Pierre duPont’s two great legacies is a sure combination of scents and sensible.
Editor’s Note: Sharon King Hoge specializes in consumer and travel journalism both in print and on radio and television. The former Consumer Reporter at WBZ-TV and producer/host of “The Sharon King Show” in Boston, she reported on ABC network news, hosted “The Cookbook Kitchen” on the Food Channel and participated in the launch of CNBC. A Contributing Editor at Condé Nast Traveler and Global Traveler magazines, her writing has appeared in Forbes FYI and Forbes Executive Woman, SELF, Ladies Home Journal, National Review. A former columnist for both AOL and the New York Daily News, she was Calendar Editor for the Martha Stewart Living website and is Editor at Large of the three regional Cottages and Gardens shelter magazines.