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Blithewold Mansion & Gardens

Michael Weishan took a guided tour of one the most elegant and varied of Rhode Island's many magnificent garden estates

Blithewold Mansion
Now open to the public, Blithewold Mansion is home to lush grounds and gardens.

Overlooking Narragansett Bay in Bristol, Rhode Island, Blithewold Mansion sits on 33 acres of grounds and gardens. The estate was established in the 1890s by Augustus and Bessie VanWickle as their summer retreat. Bessie VanWickle (later Bessie McKee) was an accomplished horticulturist and her heart's desire was to have enough good land to establish gardens and an arboretum. Together with her daughter Marjorie, Bessie spent the rest of her life developing this beautiful property.

The sweeping 10-acre lawn stops at the water's edge, with more than 1,500 trees and shrubs growing along its borders. The collection boasts nearly 250 different kinds of woody plants, both native and exotic species.

Blithewold has enjoyed a relationship with the Arnold Arboretum since 1926 when staff botanists visited the estate to see the Chinese Toon Tree (Cedrela sinensis) in bloom for what was believed to be the first time in this country.

The Rose Garden
Entering the Rose Garden through a stone moon gate, visitors are greeted with the scent of roses in numerous varieties.

Rose Garden
Visitors enter the grounds through the rose garden, where 100-year-old climbing roses grow on the fence that encloses the garden. Original shrub roses grow alongside the newer David Austin hybrids. The century-old chestnut rose (Rosa roxburghii) dominates the garden, especially when covered with thousands of single pink blossoms in early June. Passing through the Rose Garden's moon gate into the rest of the property affords visitors a first glimpse of the expansive Great Lawn and Narragansett Bay.

The Bamboo Grove
Michael and horticulturalist Julie Morris stroll through the tall, skinny profusion of the Bamboo Grove.

Bamboo Grove
The story goes that the family wanted an ever-ready supply of bamboo stakes to use in the gardens, eventually giving rise to the lush Bamboo Grove Blithewold boasts of today. It covers an area nearly the size of a tennis court and grows 30 feet tall. Visitors are intrigued by the fast-growing stalks, called culms, especially in late spring when you can practically watch them grow. The variety of bamboo is yellow groove (Phyllostachys aureosulcata).

The Rock Garden
The Rock Garden is a serene, semi-shaded sanctuary by the bay.

Rock Garden
Designed in the early 1920s, the Rock Garden is a semi-shady spot that sits just a few yards from the edge of the bay and provides a unique opportunity for visitors to study salt-tolerant plants first hand. The rocks were "planted" so only about a third would be exposed, preserving the feel of a rock garden without visually overwhelming the featured plants. Mature English yews (Taxus baccata) and Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) protect the garden from the northwest winds. The garden is full of low-growing perennials and features both sun-loving and shade-tolerant plants. There is something in bloom in the Rock Garden all season long. Ground-cover plantings of European ginger (Asarum europeum) are a special favorite with visitors, and hosta, native blueberries, viburnum and bayberry add further interest.

trowel icon For more information about Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum, visit them online at

This segment appears in show #2709.

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Published August 31, 2007