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Enlighten Me: Mt. Cuba Center mixes passion and education in celebrating wildflowers

Toward the end of this month, Delawareans will have the chance to indulge their love of wildflowers near the tip of the 12-mile Circle.

For this week’s Enlighten Me, Delaware Public Media’s James Dawson takes us on a field trip to the Mt. Cuba Center near Hockessin.

On a recent trip to Mt. Cuba, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to find.

Small snow banks lined the spiral driveway just days after temperatures nearly reached 70 during a February heat wave.

But the main garden was green and ready to pop with life.

Victor Piatt, the gardens manager at Mt. Cuba Center, shows me a nearby tulip display that will encircle a brick walkway near the back of the main courtyard.

“If these tulips had been in bud and were opening, absolutely it would’ve destroyed the flowers. If the buds were down inside and still tight, it would sort of blanket and insulate it – they should have been okay,” Piatt said.

Had the warmth lasted just a few more days, plants could’ve started blooming, leaving their tender buds exposed.

Piatt says they could’ve been “blasted” by the subsequent freeze, silencing what would’ve been a colorful spring orchestra.

He notes he would’ve probably cried had that happened, with no time left to plant replacement bulbs.

And they’ve dealt with that in the past. Piatt says he trucked in heat lamps one year, covering the tulips in a makeshift greenhouse to protect them from the frost.

“It’s roulette, it really is. You don’t know what it’s going to do. I don’t think anybody was really expecting this, the late snow, but it’s great for the water table to recharge. I’m not complaining about it at all and it’s going away nicely. It hasn’t really created much of a problem for us.”

After an inspection, Piatt lays out the garden’s first planned display in his 25-year career at Mt. Cuba – beginning in the south garden.

Visitors will enter straight from the main house after walking through two brick pillars guarded by stone eagles.

“You’re going to see a progression of color through the seasons starting, I believe April and it will go all the way into the fall. It’ll start with pastels and then it’ll go to the warmer summer colors, so blues, yellows, oh my, some pinks,” he said.

From there, you’ll walk straight back towards the now flowering tulips we inspected earlier.

A short hike over a well-manicured lawn plops you next to fragrant lilac bushes that should be ready to bloom.

Thankfully, they also escaped much of the frost damage.

“Just some of the outer bud covering – these scales – they got a little burned or chilled it looks like, but the buds are okay. They can take quite a bit of cold,” Piatt said.

A sweet, floral smell carries over into the woods path a few steps away and here’s where Mt. Cuba stakes its reputation.

Close to the ground, that’s where you’ll find most of the varietals of trillium native to the eastern United States.

“A lot of them you’ll see they’ve got this mottled foliage and that’s one of the attractive features about it. The flowers…I’ve seen them white, yellow and a maroon color. It’s three petals – some petals are upright, other ones are spreading and other ones are nodding,” Piatt said.

When I visited, they were still waiting for a bit more sunshine to perk up and bloom, but are expected to put on a show by the end of April in time for the organization’s annual Wildflower Celebration.

The walkway through the trees will grow lush as the summer progresses.

It’s one of Piatt’s favorite places on the dozens of acres of property he oversees.

“This room just gets created. It’s really neat, it’s like the paint goes on and it’s a completely different feel. As the tulip poplars leaf out you really get that cathedral feel as you walk down the woods path.”

2016 was the first year Mt. Cuba allowed visitors five days a week.

Originally owned by Lammont du Pont and Pamela Copeland, the private gardens only opened to the public in the 1980s through guided tours.

It has since allowed visitors to stroll through the grounds at their own pace since 2013 and established classes for home gardeners to learn about growing plants native to the Eastern Piedmont.

Those classes run this month through September, teaching people how to best care for these wildflowers without harming the environment.

The 13th Annual Wildflower Celebration kicks off Sunday, April 23.

The first 1,000 families receive a free Chocolate white snakeroot plant boasting white flowers and dark, burgundy leaves.