Biltmore’s hidden garden

Nestled in the heart of Biltmore’s landscape is a secret garden. Well, maybe not “secret” since it’s contained in the Conservatory, which sparkles as the centerpiece of the Walled Garden.

But it can certainly be considered an “overlooked” garden, because so many guests walk or drive past it without ever opening its lovely arched doors.

When you do venture inside, you are transported to another world—a tropical jungle of ferns, palm trees, and exotic blooms that rivals any South Beach hotspot. No matter the weather, the climate indoors welcomes you with a heady perfume that combines fragrant flowers and damp earth to create a treat for your senses.

Exhibition Room door displayThe transition is quite deliberate, and is based upon George Vanderbilt’s original vision for the Conservatory. In the late 1800s, vast glass structures like Biltmore’s Conservatory were the ultimate statement of luxurious living, exhibiting hundreds of blooming flowers, exotic plants, and delicate orchids in abundance.

At the turn of the 19th century, gardening was widely viewed as a healing pastime as well as an opportunity to showcase collections of rare and unique plants. A generation of wealthy collectors dotted the nation with lavish conservatories inspired by similar structures found on Europe estates, including Longwood Conservatory in Pennsylvania and Lyndhurst Conservatory in New York.

While serious gardeners were determined to provide optimal growing conditions for their plants, many owners chose to entertain friends and family amid giant palms and luscious orchids, A few commissioned plant hunters to travel the world’s most remote locations to seek out rare specimens.

Tree fernArchival records indicate George Vanderbilt furnished his Conservatory in a more typical manner—by ordering plants from nurseries around the country. A report in the 1894 issue of American Gardening titled “George W. Vanderbilt’s Palms” mentions he fitted out his new conservatory with some of the largest palms under cultivation in the country. The collection included 15 tree ferns imported from Australia years earlier and described the “long dark green leaves of the finest specimens reach twenty feet into the air.” Additional plants included sago palms and several “immense Palmetto palms from South Carolina.”

Today, the Conservatory continues to bring a taste of the tropics to western North Carolina despite winter’s chill. To help Mother Nature, our gardeners have coaxed spring bulbs into early bloom. Daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths brighten the central Palm House and the Cool House now, with Asiatic and oriental lilies adding their intoxicating scent in mid-April. The Cool House also hosts plants who call the subtropics home, including Australian tree ferns like the ones Vanderbilt obtained (although not the same plants), accompanied by banana trees and the evocatively-named Lollipop plants and Shrimp plants.

In the Hot House, you’ll find plants that originate in tropical climes and are familiar as houseplants, such as the philodendron and colocasia (or elephant ear)—but in larger sizes than you’d ever typically see. Among the canopy of foliage, be sure to look for the large Mexican breadfruit.

OrchidsThe orchids are mesmerizing this time of year, brightening even the dreariest of days with amazing colors and forms. The Orchid Room is filled with blooms both recognizable and unusual, from the corsage and lady slipper varieties to more rare examples.

“The lady slipper orchids have lips that look like shoes,” said Marc Burchette, who tends the collection. “We also have small yellow-flowered dancing lady orchids.”

Less common varieties include a large orchid species from Southeast Asia with clusters of red and yellow flowers on a long pendant, and a particularly fragrant orchid with crystalline green blooms from Papua New Guinea

Exotic blooms aside, you really can’t miss the most dramatic plants in the Conservatory, since they are right in front of you! As you enter the Palm House, where the glass roof rises 38 feet high, the towering specimens of Madagascar palm, Bottle palm, and Bismarck Fan palm create a tropical escape in the middle of winter.

Frame Your Travels

Looking for a fabulous way to showcase your travels? The framing professionals at Larson-Juhl suggest creating a custom-frame shadowbox to display collections of photos and treasured keepsakes that bring the journey to life all over again.

Shadowboxes are perfect for this purpose because they add depth to your collections, allowing you to add dimensional objects rather than just flat photos, maps, or postcards. A knowledgeable framer can help you choose the right height to make the most of the items you want to highlight. Professional framing and glass choices can also keep special items from further deterioration and damage. Here are a few ideas we love:

Exotic Travel Adventure

  • Photos from your excursions
  • Foreign currency
  • Special items purchased at a market
  • Ticket stubs or copies of passport travel stamps

Family Beach Vacation

  • Use a map of the beach as the background
  • Family photos taken on the beach
  • Seashells, sand, or driftwood
  • Postcards

Big City Getaway

  • Use the subway system map as the background
  • Tickets from shows, museums or any special place
  • Photos taken in the city
  • Small items purchased in the city

Biltmore Vine To Wine Tour

  • Use the map of the vineyard as the background
  • A bottle of wine from the vineyard
  • Photos of the vineyard
  • Tasting notes you jotted down along the way

Orange Tree Centerpieces from Biltmore House Breakfast Room

Breakfast Room in Biltmore House.

 These vibrant centerpieces bring a hint of traditional elegance and timeless style to your holiday table or buffet, just as they do for the Breakfast Room in Biltmore House.

Molly Hensley, Biltmore Floral Designer, gives us some of her insight:

 We chose oranges to compliment and draw attention to the two Renoir paintings—Young Algerian Girl and Child with an Orange—that hang in the room.

 To add a bit more texture and richness to the look, place the finished centerpiece on a decorative flat plate or a raised cake stand. We chose Cake Stands from Belk’s Biltmore for Your Home Collection to give our centerpieces an extra bit of height plus a hint of metallic silver detailing.

Materials needed

  • Hot glue
  • Wooden floral picks
  • Small knife
  • Artificial oranges (amount needed depends on size of centerpiece you want to create)
  • Artificial leaves, orange blossoms
  • Ribbon (optional)

  Assembling the centerpiece

 If using ribbon in your design, wrap the ribbon once around the orange and attach it with hot glue.  Do this with all oranges you are using for the centerpieces.  We used a bright citrus green ribbon for a seasonal pop of color against the oranges.

 Lay out a first layer or base of oranges in a circular/wreath-type pattern on your work surface.  Make a small hole on opposite sides of each orange, insert a wooden pick* in the hole, and use the pick to attach each orange to the next.  For extra support, fill the hole with hot glue before inserting a pick.  Work with care and protect your hands from hot glue!

 *Note:  depending on the size of your picks, you may need to cut them so all oranges rest flush against each other once picks are inserted.

 Once the base is completely dry, begin building the rest of the centerpiece in a “pyramid” fashion.  Using hot glue, affix the oranges on the top part of the base where the picked oranges attach. Continue building upward, gradually decreasing the amount of oranges you are using.  This can be accomplished by affixing the oranges slightly to the back of the layer you are attaching it to (almost in a stair step manner). 

 When the desired height is reached, put the last orange on the very top with a bow attached.  To fill in open spaces, glue an assortment of leaves or orange blossoms in the gap. 

  Make the look your own

 Consider using limes rather than oranges, or rich, red apples to enhance your holiday décor. 

How Did Our Christmas Tradition Begin?

Although George Vanderbilt moved into Biltmore House in October 1895, the house did not officially open to guests until Christmas Eve of that year. Great efforts were made to ensure all (or most!) would be ready by this special day. Mr. Vanderbilt was still a bachelor during the first Biltmore Christmas and his mother, Maria Louisa, presided as hostess.

Correspondence between Vanderbilt and his staff indicates that planning was intensive and no detail was left unattended. Managers debated which nearby county had the best holly and the most desirable mistletoe, while staff scouted for the perfect candidate for the Banquet Hall Christmas tree.

Chauncey Beadle writes estate manager, Mr. Charles McNamee:

“I quite agree with you that we should have a very large tree for this occasion; in fact, I think a twenty foot tree in that large Banquet Hall would be rather dwarfed”.

When George’s mother, several of his brothers and sisters and their spouses, and assorted nieces and nephews arrived, they were greeted in the Banquet Hall by a splendidly tall tree laden with gifts for estate workers. At the foot of the tree was a table piled high with family gifts. Because of this, the Banquet Hall has always been the focal point for Christmas celebrations in Biltmore House.

The Banquet Hall tree is a Christmas tradition at Biltmore
The Banquet Hall tree is a Christmas tradition at Biltmore

The family and guests gathered around the forty-foot Banquet Hall table for elaborate dinners served both evenings. Mr. Vanderbilt’s niece Gertrude kept a series of Dinner Books in which she recorded the seating arrangements of all of the parties and dinners she attended as a young woman, and she was one of the guests at the first Christmas dinner here in Biltmore House. Gertrude kept two Dinner Books in 1895, and the Christmas meal at Biltmore House was the 193rd formal dinner that she attended that year. In her diagram of the dinner, she listed 27 Vanderbilt family members. It was said to be the largest gathering of the family since the death of William Henry Vanderbilt, George’s father, in 1885.

In addition to the grand meals and festive décor, stockings hung on mantles, plum puddings and mince pies were served, and George’s mother read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ to the children. All in all, it must have been a grand time—one article even stated that the family exchanged gilded and jeweled Christmas cards.