Although Hershey Gardens is right down the road, and although you’ve visited it lots of times (you HAVE visited it lots of times, right?), I’ll bet there’s a lot you don’t know about these 23 acres and their history.
* Milton Hershey wasn’t much of a gardener, but his wife, Katherine (Kitty) was. She played an active role in the design and care of their High Point Mansion landscaping. Good-husband Milton made sure Kitty had a bouquet of fresh flowers every day.
* Mr. Hershey nevertheless appreciated plants and especially trees. In planning the town, he set aside 150 acres for a public park and made sure all company housing had yards for flowers. He also staged public flower shows for many years.
* What’s now that beautiful lake with the roses all around originally was a drainage pit to catch water coming down the hill from Hotel Hershey.
* One of Mr. Hershey’s favorite spots anywhere was sitting next to a boxwood by a small, landscaped lake off to the secluded eastern end of Hershey Gardens. He’d sit there many evenings and read the paper. Staff knew to let him alone during that time of peace.
* Up until the 1970s, Hershey Gardens was unenclosed and charged no admission. For much of its early history, people were allowed to drive their cars through the 23 acres.
* Hershey Gardens is the site of an annual interdenominational Easter sunrise service, which is free to the public. The first one dates back to 1947 – just 10 years after the Gardens came into being.
* Hershey Gardens didn’t always have theme gardens, such as the Japanese Garden, the Rock Garden and the Ornamental Grass Garden. That concept came along only in 1979 when themes became the national trend at public gardens.
* Tiny Tim (remember him?) came to Hershey Gardens to mark the 50th anniversary. He sang his then-famous “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”
* When Hershey Gardens added a Butterfly House in 1998, the original structure was the steel arches from the Hershey Estates Greenhouse, originally built in 1930.
* The Butterfly House every summer is home to about 400 butterflies from three dozen species, including black swallowtails, painted ladies, white peacocks, gulf fritillaries and zebra heliconians.
* The Gardens have an underrated collection of big, old and unusual trees species. Seven of them are listed as “Champion Trees of Pennsylvania” by the Pa. Forestry Association, recognizing them as being the biggest of their species in Pennsylvania. Among them: a linden, a pine, a cunninghamia, a columnar beech and a greenthread falsecypress. (More on champion trees at www.pabigtrees.com.)
* The Hershey Gardens plant with the most distinguished past is the ‘Dense Jade’ Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) at the entrance tothe Rock Garden. This 35-foot-tall needled evergreen is a “mother tree” that was the original source of all the ‘Dense Jade’ Japanese cedars in cultivation today. The J. Vermeulen and Sons nursery in Neshanic Station, N.J., donated the tree to Hershey Gardens in 2006.
* Each fall, the Gardens staff and volunteers plant 45,000 tulip bulbs. Each spring after the tulips are done blooming, they all get yanked because most tulips don’t bloom reliably enough for more than one season. One of the benefits of being a volunteer is that you get to take home some of these tulips, which can put out decent blooms for another few years.
* Hershey Gardens rescued the famous “Testa fig” that people have seen growing at Hockersville Road and Route 422 for more than 50 years. The house there was about to go on the market, and people worried about what would happen to the fig. Hershey Gardens planted divisions, which can now be seen in the Herb Garden. Turns out the property didn’t sell anyway.
* Milton Hershey once had a rose named after him. Hershey Gardens planted dozens of this dark-red ‘M.S. Hershey’ hybrid-tea rose, but the numbers dwindled to a hand full. In honor of this year’s 75th anniversary, the survivor plants have been propagated to create 75 new offspring that are to go in the Gardens’ newest theme area – the “M.S. Hershey Tribute Garden” being installed this summer.
* Want to get in Hershey Gardens free? You’ve got a few options. One is to be under 3 years of age. Another is to be a father on Father’s Day or a mother on Mother’s Day. And everyone gets in free for the annual Gardenfest, a day of special exhibits and activities. Gardenfest 2012 is scheduled for Sat., Sept. 23.
* Hershey Gardens has only 7 full-time gardeners but 190 volunteers who help prune the roses, plant the bulbs and generally keep the place looking good. It takes 46 hours of mowing time each week to keep the grass cut and 130 man-hours to deadhead the first bloom of roses. And while we’re at with the numbers, the Gardens now have 275 different varieties of roses and nearly 5,500 rose bushes.
* How many people visit Hershey Gardens a year? The total is about 100,000. Will you be one of them? The gardens are opening daily on April 6th. For hours and more details, visit www.hersheygardens.org.