May is the perfect time for a visit to the Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich! From early May to mid-June the historic garden is bursting with life as thousands of rhododendrons bloom, creating walls of the fragrant and unique flowers. The gardens make a perfect backdrop for a family picnic or a quiet stroll!
This year marks 100 years since Charles Owen Dexter first purchased the land and began his rhododendron hybridization work. Dexter, an internationally known rhododendron enthusiast, created thousands of varieties of rhododendrons between 1921 and 1943. He brought plants from around the world to the estate in Sandwich, mixing the best characteristics of each to create new varieties. He aimed to create varieties that were fragrant, had big blossoms, bright colors, and were cold-hardy.
Dexter did not keep many notes or name the cultivars himself, as the folks at Gardens note, leading to a bit of mystery in the lineage of some varieties. Some of the hybrids were named after Dexter’s death in 1943 by experts who took cuttings, grew them out, and categorized different varieties. Horticulturists at the Heritage Museums & Gardens and beyond continue the detective work of discerning the Dexter cultivars.
The 160 named rhododendron varieties found at his former estate in Sandwich are likely just a drop in the bucket of the true number of cultivars Dexter created and sent across the country. The Heritage Gardens notes that at the peak of his work Charles Dexter was producing upwards of 10,000 seedlings each year! The staff of Heritage evaluate some of the thousands of unnamed Dexter hybridizations each year, and some join the ranks of the named rhododendrons. Some of the most notable varieties at the Heritage Gardens include, ‘Scintillation’, ‘Yellow Gate’, ‘Dexter’s Orange’, ‘Dexter’s Spice’ and ‘Eben Jordan’.
The rhododendrons offer stunning spectacles with the blooms of the large bushes ranging from white to yellow, pink, red, purple and everything in between. Visitors and avid gardeners will enjoy the Rhododendron Festival at the garden on May 21st, enjoy the stunning floral display while learning more about the care rhododendrons need. The Plant Sale also gives you the chance to bring a piece of the gardens home with you to enjoy each year!
Those looking for the perfect stop for a Mother’s Day picnic or stroll will love that moms get free admission to the gardens on Mother’s Day, just be sure to reserve a spot in advance! Beyond the rhododendrons, May offers blooming lupins, lilacs, Star Magnolias, Cherry and crabapple blossoms and more!
The property boasts 100 acres of gardens, wooded nature trails, lawns, and museum exhibits. Those visiting later in the summer will enjoy several hydrangea gardens, including the newly expanded North American Hydrangea Test Garden. There is no shortage of unique spaces to explore. The McGraw Family Garden of the Senses, Hart Family Maze Garden, Labyrinth, pollinator gardens, and Hidden Hollow area for children are all unique and fun spots to see! 2021 museum exhibits include wild Lego insect and bird sculptures, New England Toy Stories, Classic Automobiles, and a Wampanoag Wetu and traditional vegetable garden created by members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Heritage’s permanent collection includes the 1908 Looff Carousel, American Automobile Collection, and more. Those interested in learning more about the collections before their visit can explore the collections online from the Heritage website as well.
So, stop by the Heritage Museums & Gardens in May for a peek at the unique rhododendrons and other botanical beauties in this special corner of Sandwich! The gardens are open seven days a week, 10 am- 5 pm, from late April to mid-October with an admission fee of $20.