Inside Biltmore Blooms: Balancing Books and Blossoms

Each spring, our floral team is tasked with creating imaginative displays throughout America’s largest home in honor of Biltmore Blooms. This year’s theme is “Celebration of Flowers,” highlighting Vanderbilt family celebrations. However, as Biltmore Blooms is coinciding with Designed for Drama: Fashion from the Classics, our new exhibition inspired by George Vanderbilt’s love of literature, you may also notice another motif in the decorative arrangements: books.

Floral display in Entrance Hall for Biltmore BloomsThe floral design in the Entrance Hall often introduces the theme for each event and exhibition, and this spring is no exception. The most notable element is a massive swirl of natural dried honeysuckle vines, somewhat resembling a tornado, suspended over the table. Amid the faux and dried flowers are printed pages and books from local thrift stores that appear to be flying.

Floral display in Entrance Hall for Biltmore Blooms“We hope this feature might suggest to our guests that the books and the knowledge they represent can become creative inspiration—something much greater than ‘just a book,’” explains Cathy Barnhardt, Floral Displays manager.

Floral display in Entrance Hall for Biltmore BloomsBeneath the beautiful whirlwind, the Entrance Hall table is covered with an eclectic collection of ferns and orchids—the same flower that adorned Cornelia Vanderbilt’s 25th birthday celebration—as well as glass cloches and vases, magnifying glasses, and books, bringing together both themes of the season in a seamless fashion.

Floral display in Entrance Hall for Biltmore BloomsAnchoring the table display is a large Wardian case with even more orchids inside. The petite glass greenhouse gives the display a whimsical feel, but it also serves as a nod to the delicate flower’s unique history. In the early 1800s, orchids and other exotic plants were shipped from the tropics in protective Wardian cases to make their European debut.

Floral display in Entrance Hall for Biltmore Blooms“The table décor suggests that George Vanderbilt’s love of books and knowledge came together with his love of home and gardens to create Biltmore,” says Cathy.

Join us this spring as we celebrate Biltmore Blooms and Designed for Drama with this breathtaking display and more.

Desperately Seeking Springtime? Try Biltmore’s Conservatory!

Each spring, we welcome the return of the season with our annual Biltmore Blooms celebration. In the midst of winter, however, Biltmore’s Conservatory offers an indoor tropical oasis that’s as welcome as a breath of spring. The colorful blooms and sheer number of different plants are amazing inside this indoor garden that anchors the Walled Garden.

The Conservatory in the Walled Garden at BiltmoreA passion for horticulture

Completed in 1895, the Conservatory embodies the late 19th-century passion for horticulture. It was a collaboration between George Vanderbilt, Frederick Law Olmsted, the estate’s landscape architect, and Richard Morris Hunt, who designed Biltmore House. Hunt designed the structure while Olmsted weighed in on the location.

“Olmsted wrote to Hunt in March 1889, discussing several landscape considerations including positioning the Conservatory out of view from the house,” said Bill Alexander, Landscape and Forest Historian. “This was in keeping with Olmsted’s desire to create a natural landscape and uninterrupted view.”

Succulents growing in Biltmore's ConservatoryLike other conservatories in the early 1900s, Biltmore’s glass-enclosed building sheltered exotic and tropical plants from around the world. But this facility was much more than a pretty place to showcase rare plants; it also fulfilled Vanderbilt’s vision of Biltmore as a self sufficient, working estate. The structure nurtured tender young seedlings for transplanting outdoors and housed gardeners’ workspaces, tools and equipment.

It’s also unique from other circa 1900 conservatories. “Ours has a full basement underneath it; I don’t know of any other conservatory that has one,” Bill said. “Olmsted and Hunt used the lay of the land to create a functional work space.”

For a building made primarily of glass, it’s remarkable that the Conservatory’s design and construction stood the test of time for more than a century. In 1997, the structure received an extensive two-year renovation.

“We focused on much-needed repairs while restoring much of the floor plan to the original 1893 design,” said Bill. “I believe George Vanderbilt, who was fascinated with technology and innovations, would have been excited by everything we did to preserve this historic building.”

The Orchid Room in the Conservatory at BiltmoreOrchids on display

One of the highlights of the Conservatory is the Orchid Room, where Marc Burchette, orchid specialist, cares for more than 500 plants in the collection. Jordana Chalnik, Conservatory Horticulturist, and Kathryn Marsh, Conservatory Gardener, assist Marc as needed with care and displaying of plants.

“Our collection highlights five major groups of orchids,” said Marc, who also serves as vice president of the WNC Orchid Society. “A large portion is orchids people generally know, like corsage orchids which come in every color imaginable. We also have lady slipper orchids and small, yellow-flowered dancing lady orchids.”

Yellow orchids in Biltmore's ConservatoryMarc most admires the diversity of orchids, explaining that there are 25,000 to 30,000 species growing in every ecosystem except Antarctica.

“They are diverse in every respect, from the shape of their flowers to the way they trick pollinators like bees or humming birds, because there is rarely any nectar or pollen in the blooms,” said Marc. “They are fascinating.”

If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also like to explore Winter Warmer-Upper and Biltmore’s Hidden Garden.

Featured image: Peaceful seating area inside the Conservatory
First image: Conservatory in the Walled Garden
Second image: Succulents in a decorative urn
Third image: The Orchid Room in the Conservatory
Fourth image: Yellow orchids in the Orchid Room

Explore Biltmore’s Walking, Running, Hiking, and Bike Trails

Whether you’re at Biltmore for a short stay or are an Annual Passholder, exploring Biltmore’s 22 miles of trails is an excellent way to get some outdoor exercise. From leisurely strolls to intense workouts, our trails offer a variety of routes that can be tailored to your skill level with spectacular views throughout each season.

We’ve listed some of our recommended routes below, but refer to our Garden Map or Trail Map before you embark. All of the trails listed below are pet-friendly, well-maintained, and located on Biltmore’s private property. For more infomation, please contact the Outdoor Adventure Center at 828-225-1331.

Easy Walking Trails

Walk in our manicured gardens on paved paths in Biltmore's Italian and Shrub Gardens
Walk in our manicured gardens on paved paths in our historic gardens

Historic Gardens (walking) – This popular walking path incorporates the Italian Garden (gravel), Shrub Garden (paved), Walled Garden (paved), and Spring Garden (mulch). It stretches approximately 1-2 miles depending on the particular paths you choose. Enjoy the seasonal blooms with the benefit of several benches along the way to stop, catch your breath, and admire Biltmore’s beauty. Please note, some access points to the Shrub Garden and Walled Garden require going up or down railed stairways. 

Azalea Garden (walking) – This mostly-paved walking path can be accessed from either the Spring Garden or Walled Garden. This lovely path allows you to go even deeper into Biltmore’s historic gardens, offering benches along the way, and leads to Bass Pond Waterfall and Boat House. It offers spectacular views across the Bass Pond at approximately 1 mile.

Moderate Walking, Running, and Bike Paths

View from the Lagoon of the West Side of Biltmore House
View from the Lagoon of the West Side of Biltmore House

Lagoon Trail (walking, running, biking) – This mostly flat, paved trail leads to the Lagoon, which offers a striking view of the west side of Biltmore House (a popular picnic spot). Start and end at Antler Hill Village for a pleasant 3-mile trip. The French Broad River and estate farmland provide pleasant scenery as you explore the path. 

Farm Trail (walking, running, biking) – This flat gravel and dirt road runs along the perimeter of Biltmore’s grounds and the French Broad River. Totaling 6 miles, this trail also leads into the Arbor Trace Trail at one end and the Lagoon Trail at the other.

Westover Trails (hiking, biking, trail running) – Access this set of Biltmore trails from the Bike Barn or The Inn on Biltmore Estate to see Biltmore’s beautiful woodlands. The green (1.7 miles) and blue routes (2.8 miles) immerse you in nature while offering wide trails for a comfortable experience with a few challenging hills.

Challenging Hiking, Running, and Bike Paths

On Biltmore's Westover trails, a bridge in the woods
Biltmore Westover trails

Westover Trails (hiking, trail-running, biking) – The black route totals 3.5 miles round-trip inside Biltmore’s beautiful woodland. The narrow trail offers steep hills and is great for a technical single-track bike ride, or authentic hiking experience.

Arbor Trace Trail (hiking, trail-running, biking) This Biltmore trail can only be accessed by first following the Farm Trail. The 3.5 mile round-trip route travels in and out of the woods providing scenic views of the estate’s agriculture and the historic Cottage on Biltmore Estate. The last stretch of the trail (black) is quite narrow and an optional loop.

Deerpark Trail (walking, running, biking) – This challenging uphill trek is quite popular due to the stunning view of Biltmore House it offers. For an even longer challenge, start at Antler Hill Village and take the Farm Trail, to the Lagoon Trail which will meet Deerpark Trail. 

Gingerbread Architecture: Incredible AND Edible!

Ever since The Inn on Biltmore Estate opened in 2001, its Christmas at Biltmore decorations have included a miniature version of the hotel made from gingerbread. This year, however, Pastry Chef Cheryl Brookhouzen changed things up with her Walled Garden-inspired gingerbread Conservatory!

Gingerbread fox builds a snowmanAccording to her co-workers, Chef Brookhouzen’s vision and attention to detail make this gingerbread display truly over-the-top spectacular. Special features include rotating Christmas trees in the front and back, a lighted roof and windows, charming animals, and a host of other miniature touches.

Gingerbread Conservatory at The Inn on Biltmore Estate“We’ve been doing a gingerbread model of The Inn for nearly 15 years, so I thought it was time to try something new,” said Chef Brookhouzen of her design. “I hope that having something so different will delight our guests and make them interested in seeing what we create next year.”

Details of the gingerbread roof at The Inn on Biltmore EstateGingerbread Conservatory Fun Facts

1. The Conservatory was constructed with the help of 11 members of The Inn’s team, from pastry professionals to engineering, banquet, and purchasing services
2. Chef Brookhouzen baked the gingerbread in large slabs before cutting it into the right shapes
3. The display required 175 pounds of gingerbread dough, 160 pounds of powdered sugar, and more than 15 kinds of candy and snacks such as Kit-Kats, M&Ms, Sixlets, Sour Tape, Hershey’s chocolate bars, pretzels, old-fashioned candy sticks, mint candies, chocolate bears, chocolate caramel balls, chocolate leaves, lollipop trees, and more*
4. The windows and roof are made of poured isomalt sugar
5. The Conservatory shines with 800 white lights

*An additional 4 pounds of candy was consumed by the builders of the Conservatory!

Bringing the outdoors in at Christmas

From dozens of decorated trees to miles of garland (yes, miles!), Christmas at Biltmore is a season characterized by twinkling lights, beautiful ornaments, and breathtaking floral arrangements throughout America’s largest home.

Although the general impression of the decked halls in Biltmore House is one of glittering splendor, some of the decorative elements are stunningly simple, owing their beauty to Mother Nature’s handiwork rather than any man-made creation.

Gathering hydrangeas in Biltmore's gardens“I’m all about less is more,” said Betsey Baker, a member of the Biltmore Floral team. Betsey came to Biltmore in 1999 as a plant expert at A Gardener’s Place, the charming garden and gift shop located beneath the Conservatory in the Walled Garden. In 2001, she joined Floral, which included cutting privileges for the gardens and grounds, and Betsey embraced the concept of “bringing the outdoors in” that meshed with her own natural style. Though officially retired for several years, Betsey continues to work with Floral on a reserve basis.

“For me, the beauty of arranging plants and flowers is that they tell me where they want to go,” Betsey said of her personal design aesthetic.

Christmas hydrangeas in the Music RoomThat was never more apparent than in 2009 when the estate’s theme was “Flowers, Fields, and Forests.” Betsey, who has cutting privileges in Biltmore’s gardens, created a particularly lush display featuring mounds of dried Hydrangea macrophylla that she harvested from the estate, spread out to dry, and then incorporated into her plan for the Music Room.

Dried hydrangeas in the Music Room“This type of hydrangea produces a large “head” of pale green blooms that is very full and tightly packed,” Betsey said. “After I clipped the heads, I hung them upside down to dry. As they dried, some of the flowers took on a warm cream and bronze hue, with beautiful pink tips. It gave the Music Room a natural blush of color that softened the massive mantel and drew out subtle tones in the woodwork and the furnishings.”

For Christmas at Biltmore this year, Betsey worked almost entirely with live plants in areas including the Halloween Room, Stone Hallway, and the Loggia.

“I used a lot of nursery plants and mixed in some tropical specimens that you’d expect to find in the house or in the Conservatory this time of year,” said Betsey. “I kept it simple, but it definitely brings a living, breathing energy to those areas of Biltmore House that aren’t traditionally decorated with Christmas trees and floral arrangements.”

Fall Garden Maintenance at Biltmore

As fall beauty begins to blanket the estate, our dedicated garden crew is busy preparing the grounds for cooler temperatures. Of course, the blowing and raking of leaves is a seemingly never-ending task among the crew this time of year, but here’s a peek into a few of their other duties.

Gardener cleaning out Italian Garden pools

After their summertime glory, Marc Montrell (pictured) is working to gather fading lilies from the Italian Garden ponds over the next few weeks. Along with all of our raked leaves across the estate, they will be composted. Many of our guests ask what happens to the koi during this time, but they actually remain in the ponds and hibernate over winter!

Gardener John Smith pruning roses

There are still many gorgeous blooms in the Rose Garden, but there is a lot of pruning and “deadheading” to be done over the next couple of weeks. A preliminary trim to mid-height is done in late November, with the final cutting in late winter when the roses are dormant. Gardener John Smith (pictured) notes that this method may not apply in other gardens, at Biltmore’s Rose Garden acts as it’s own ecosystem, protected by the stone walls which retain heat and offer protection from the wind.

Clare Whittington watering evergreen trees in front of Biltmore House

The Garden crew recently planted winter evergreens such as Blue Spruce, Hemlock and Magnolia trees in the large pots along Biltmore’s front door. Gardner Clare Whittington (pictured) notes that watering these potted trees must be done frequently, and are constantly monitored during freezing temperatures in the winter.

No matter what time of year guests visit, this wonderful team works hard to ensure the gardens and grounds are beautiful. Visit the Gardens & Grounds section of our website for more information about what’s featured throughout the year.

“Polar Express Sunbelt” sweeps the 2016 Biltmore International Rose Trials

A jury of rose experts from around the world has selected the winning roses in the 2016 Biltmore International Rose Trials, held recently in Biltmore’s historic Rose Garden.

Polar Express Sunbelt (photo above), bred by Kordes (KORblixmu), took the top award: the George and Edith Vanderbilt Award for Most Outstanding Rose of the Trials.

Since 2011, Biltmore’s historic Rose Garden has been home to the trials in which more than 150 varieties from growers and breeders worldwide have been planted and cared for by Biltmore’s expert horticulturalists.

In addition to winning Best in Show, Polar Express Sunbelt won the Edith Wharton Award for Best Floribunda, and the William Cecil Award for Best Growth Habit.

Additional winners this year were:

Honeymoon Arborose, bred by Kordes (KORhemtra), winner of the Gilded Age Award for Best Climber and the Lord Burleigh Award for Most Disease Resistant


Double 10, bred by Ping Lim (LIM10), winner of the Pauline Merrell Award for Best Hybrid Tea

The Lark Ascending, bred by David Austin Roses (Ausursula), winner of the Chauncey Beadle Award for Best Shrub

Each trial lasts two years and a permanent jury judges the roses four times per year. This year’s final round of competition started with 31 entries planted in 2014 from Canada, the U.S., France, Ireland, Great Britain and Germany.

Trials of this type are open to rose breeders around the world – from professional to beginner. Competing roses are evaluated for overall health and rigor; fragrance; disease resistance; and ability to repeat bloom. 

Congratulations to all of the winners!

Biltmore's Rose Garden receives Award of Garden Excellence

During the trials event, Biltmore’s rosarian Emily Wilson and past American Rose Society president Jolene Adams unveiled an award in honor of Biltmore’s historic Rose Garden: the World Federation of Rose Societies Award of Garden Excellence. Biltmore’s rose garden is one of only 10 gardens in the United States and 62 worldwide to receive it. Susan Fox, one of the Rose Trials jurors, tells us that gardeners and garden lovers travel just to see the gardens that receive this award. We are honored to have received it! 

Preserving the Legacy of Cornelia’s “Baby Tree”

George and Edith Vanderbilt welcomed the arrival their first and only child—a daughter named Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt—in the late summer of 1900. George Vanderbilt and baby Cornelia, 1900In October of that year, a cucumbertree magnolia, known to botanists as Magnolia acuminata, was planted in Cornelia’s honor, just after her christening.

The cucumbertree is a deciduous magnolia with large oblong leaves. Unlike most other magnolias, its flowers are yellowish green and not very showy, causing them to often go unnoticed when they bloom in late May or early June. In its early stages, the green, fleshy fruit roughly resembles a small cucumber, hence the tree’s name.

Biltmore’s botanist, Chauncey Beadle, had collected the scarlet seeds of this indigenous tree found growing along the banks of the French Broad River near the estate. Beadle, who would later develop a close bond with Cornelia, propagated the seeds in the Biltmore Nursery

Beadle wrote:

“The seedlings resulting from this sowing were planted out in nursery rows, cultivated and pruned and eventually, placed along the roads and paths of the Estate with the exception of one tree, a particularly beautiful and thrifty individual, which remained on [sic] the nursery until chosen for the noteworthy occasion of which this writing bears record.”

Second Generation Cucumbertree MagnoliaThe Planting Ceremony

The planting of the cucumbertree magnolia, known fondly as the “baby tree” or “Cornelia’s tree,” was a small and intimate event. The Vanderbilt family, Beadle, Dr. Samuel Westray Battle, and a few estate workers were the only attendants.

A 1900 Asheville Daily Citizen article states:

“The spot selected is in a beautiful grassy dell near Biltmore House. The tree itself, now but a sapling of twelve feet in height, is expected to be 60 feet above the ground when little Cornelia reaches the age of 20 years. A few years after that event, it is expected that it will reach a height of 100 feet. It lives centuries, and is one of the prides of our beautiful southern forests.”

The baby tree grew to be massive, standing proudly in the Azalea Garden, just below the junction of the two main paths leading into the garden below the Conservatory and greenhouses.

A Legacy’s Second Generation

After surviving more than a century, the baby tree succumbed to decay. Though a difficult decision, it was removed in September 2008. By that time, the cucumbertree magnolia—once a precious symbol of new life—had lost most of its bark and had just a few remaining branches.

Plaque of Second Generation Cucumbertree Magnolia

Fortunately, the historical significance of the tree along with the gorgeous color and diversity of its wood grain made its timber ideal for repurposing. The usable wood was custom sawn into thick slabs and dried to create “high boy” cocktail tables at Cedric’s Tavern in Antler Hill Village as well as a 15-foot table located in the Stable Conference Room at Biltmore House.
Today, the second generation cucumbertree magnolia, which seeded naturally when the original baby tree was still living, can be found thriving in the same exact location in the Azalea Garden, preserving the legacy of this historic tree.
Featured: The Planting of Cornelia’s Tree, 1900
Top Right: George Vanderbilt and baby Cornelia, 1900
Left: Cucumbertree Magnolia, second generation
Right: Second generation Cucumbertree Magnolia plaque

How does our garden grow?

If something edible is being grown at Biltmore, chances are you’ll find that Eli Herman had a hand in it. Now serving as the estate’s Field to Table Production Garden Manager, Eli has spent more than 30 years coaxing a variety of produce to flourish in the fields of Biltmore.

Green Tower lettuceFor events such as our Taste of Biltmore celebration each September, Eli plans well in advance to bring in a bountiful harvest. In addition to the microgreens and lettuces that grow year-round in the greenhouse, the Production Garden offers a seasonal wealth of delicious fruits, vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers to grace the plates of estate restaurants as well as taking center stage in culinary demos.

Blackberries ripening on the vineOur fruits and vegetables taste as good as they look,” said Eli, “and nothing beats the taste of something that was grown right here and only traveled across the estate to your table!”

This season was particularly favorable for both acorn squash and fingerling potatoes, both of which will find their way onto estate menus this fall. Eli is particularly pleased with this year’s potato crop, and he has special plans for the tasty tubers.

Eli Herman with hydroponic lettuce“We planted three different types of fingerling potatoes this spring,” Eli said. “Russian Bananas, which are a yellow-fleshed, banana-shaped potato, red-skinned Papa Chacos, and Magic Molly, which is a round, blue potato. They all came in well and I’m saving some of them for our special Taste of Biltmore events with Chef Vivian Howard of the PBS series A Chef’s Life.”

To sample the bounty of the Production Garden, look for estate-grown ingredients on our menus any time, or join us for special Taste of Biltmore events throughout the month of September.

Best-kept secrets: Biltmore’s alley gardens

With acres of vivid colors and lush plantings, the gardens of Biltmore are so breathtaking that some guests never venture inside the Conservatory during the summer months. According to Jordana Chalnick, Conservatory Horticulturist, however, those who stay outside are missing out on some very special displays in the “back alleys” of the Conservatory.

A working conservatory

“Biltmore’s Conservatory was originally designed to be a functional workspace for growing and nurturing plants as well as an indoor garden space for guests,” said Jordana. “We continue to use it for both purposes today, and we also create intriguing displays that draw visitors through the Conservatory and into the alleys behind it.”

A shady spot in one of the Conservatory alley gardens

Jordana has been with Biltmore since 2006, putting her horticulture degree to use first in the Azalea Garden and then in the Conservatory. She became Conservatory Horticulturalist in 2013 and has been instrumental in creating the displays that make the Conservatory a must-see during any Biltmore visit.

“In the mid-1990s, there were just a few hanging baskets and some of the larger trees in the alleys,” Jordana said. “Gradually, the staff began lining the alley walls with plants and then over the years adding under-plantings to the larger pots. The alleys have definitely evolved from what they were initially to the more designed and elaborate displays we do today.”

Heating up and keeping cool

Jordana noted that there are actually two alleys—one between the cool room and the sitting room and one between the hot room and the sitting room.

This year, the cool alley, which was designed by Conservatory Gardener Kathryn Marsh, features fragrant plants that create a shady respite from the sun during the hot summer months. Having all the different fragrances makes it a nice space in which to take break and relax for a while.

The hot alley features water plants using dwarf versions of many of the species in the Italian Garden.

A blue pot with water plants

“I’ve always liked the idea of displaying the water plants in a way that guests can have closer access to them than they do in the Italian pools,” Jordana said. “I took lots of inspiration from pictures of gardens in Bali and Thailand where they incorporate water plants seamlessly into the landscape as opposed to having a special area for them.”

Alley installation

As far as installing the alleys, the Conservatory crew does as much as possible ahead of time. They received most of the cool alley’s fragrant plants from Florida in March, and the dwarf lotus plants for the hot alley were stored in the Italian Garden pools until early June. 

Fiery yellow and red blooms

“We already have a general idea of which plants will go in which alley, so we will generally load up a truck load for one alley, haul it up and unload it,” said Jordana. “We have one reserve worker who helps us and we definitely get a lot of help from everyone in Historic Gardens, since our crew is pretty small and installing the alleys is a huge project.”

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Pink hibiscus in the cool alley behind the Conservatory

Now that the alley plantings are installed, the Conservatory crew will maintain them throughout the summer, watering, grooming and deadheading as needed. The alleys will stay in until around mid-September when the plants need to start transitioning back to the greenhouses for winter.

“I love my job,” Jordana said, “because I get to use my creativity in designing displays as well as using all of my horticultural knowledge to keep plants happy and healthy.”