Blithewold Mansion is a Must-See Destination in Bristol, Rhode Island
For twenty years, I’ve visited Blithewold estate in all seasons. The grand stone house—a mansion indeed—that anchors the property has never been my destination, however. Instead, what continues to capture my attention are the thirty-three acres of sui generis gardens overlooking Narragansett Bay.
Begun in the 1890’s by the Van Winkle family, coal barons from Pennsylvania, today Blithewold’s gardens are better than ever. Thanks to the tireless visionaries of groups such as Save Blithewold Inc. and The Garden Conservancy, an immense property that by the 1990’s had nearly fallen to developers now enjoys not just a secure future, but a bountiful one.
And no wonder: there is such a bounty to work with. The last Van Winkle descendent was in residence until 1976, and left the entire estate—contents of the house included—to the Heritage Trust of Rhode Island. In addition to the furnishings and even the clothing, there were generations of paperwork documenting the family’s socializing as well as its botanizing. And what a trove it is!
A century-old planting of daffodils—now burgeoned to 50,000—carpets a woody area known as the bosquet. They were planted before World War I. Daffodil clumps don’t need division to thrive, and to walk through the bosquet during the annual daffodil days each April is to step into a time machine: even by WW I, hundreds of the very same clumps you might enjoy now would have already developed from those starter bulbs.
Blithewold’s massive chestnut rose has been thrilling garden visitors for just as long. Rosa roxburghii needs space, not pruning, so that its stems can thicken to limbs and even trunks. In 2000, I was given a rooted cutting from this specimen that I’ve since trained into a small tree. In another eighty years, its trunk might also have grown to eight or ten inches thick, supporting a canopy the size of couple of parking spaces. Young or venerable, this rose’s spring show of large, single, pale-pink blooms is indelible.
“A century is just a coffee break for Blithewold’s sequoias. The first was planted in 1911 after it had outgrown a greenhouse in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Now about a hundred feet tall, Blithewold’s largest tree is the tallest Sequoiadendron giganteum east of the Rockies.”
A century is just a coffee break for Blithewold’s sequoias. The first was planted in 1911 after it had outgrown a greenhouse in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Now about a hundred feet tall, Blithewold’s largest tree is the tallest Sequoiadendron giganteum east of the Rockies. The tree stands guard over an acre-sized lawn in the midst of woods that help shelter it from hurricane winds. Given the opportunity, sequoias live for millennia. What will the world be like in, say, 4016? This same tree could still be stunning visitors.
Our own gardens are likely not to have the astonishing sweep, complexity, and heritage of those of Blithewold, but no matter: plants everywhere link us to the past as well as the future. That there’s an old weeping beech at Blithewold today is only because of the enthusiasm of the Van Winkle family, the landscape architect, John DeWolf, who assisted them, and the gardeners who did the actual planting decades ago. Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’ is a cultivar of European beech, and is not naturalized in North America: someone had to decide to plant each European beech you encounter here. The trees need longer than any human’s lifetime to assume their full glory so, whenever you see a mature beech firing on all cylinders, whoever planted it is long gone. At least in part, planting such a tree is always a gift to the future.
Need a break from looking back over hundreds of years—or forward over thousands? Blithewold’s greenhouse gardens are one way for the current events crowd to partake in the estate’s ongoing story. Originally a production facility supplying bouquets and potted specimen plants for the house, the greenhouse and its surrounding beds now enable Blithewold to celebrate different annuals and tropicals from Spring into Fall, and also to provide a conservatory display during the cool months between Fall and Spring. There’s no planting-and-watching-it-grow-for-a-century here. Instead, seeds and cuttings are started in March and April for warm-weather plantings that are fully mature from July to September and ready for composting after frost in October.
Robust programming is another way Blithewold stays fresh. Thank goodness: even this plant geek can’t live on peerless horticulture alone. In addition to honoring those century-old daffodil clumps each April, marveling at each year’s new summer planting scheme for the greenhouse garden’s beds, and communing with the big sequoia in the depths of winter, I’ve visited Blithewold for site-specific sculpture, August galas for 400, and celebrations held in the estate’s three-season tent. Others’ cup of tea may be jazz at sunset on the great lawn, the extensive children’s programming, or the holiday weeks from Thanksgiving through the New Year, when the mansion glitters with what appears to be an attic-full of seasonal decorations.
As with the gardens themselves, Blithewold’s future is ever-unfolding. Plans are underway to build a visitor center, an institutional-scale dock instead of the family-sized one that the Van Winkles moored their boats at, and upgrading hundreds of yards of pathways for enhanced accessibility. Horticultural goals include planting a hundred more trees and creating waterside plantings that are wildlife-friendly, free of invasive species, and aesthetically adventurous.
The property’s spectacular waterfront location, century-old plantings, and new-and-newer enhancements make the gardens at Blithewold irresistible. I’ll be continuing my regular visits for decades to come.
For visiting hours and to learn more about Blithewold Mansion, Gardens, and Arboretum, visit the estate’s website.
Louis Raymond designs landscapes throughout New England, and some of his favorites are at LouisRaymond.Design. In LouisThePlantGeek.com, he explores uncommon & astonishing plants at home & around the world.