The sprawling park of Duke Farms never disappoints, especially when taking a walk or riding a bike on a sunny day. It also holds some fascinating stories connected with its previous, almost legendary, owner, Doris Duke.
Ms. Duke explored a variety of passions, ranging from Eastern spirituality, jazz piano, singing, collecting art and antiques to cultivating orchids. She travelled the world while establishing three primary residences: Shangri la in Hawaii, Newport in Rhode Island, and the Duke Estate in Somerville, New Jersey. It is in the latter, where as a young girl, she was brought up mainly by her father, James Buchanan Duke, a tobacco magnate. Her father died in 1925, when Doris was only twelve years old. A ten foot high orchid arrangement, gifted by his brother Ben, decorated James' bed side. "Doris would say that it was the beauty of the orchids in so emotional a moment that influenced her later interest in cultivating them. (...) They brought solace to her and a sense of beauty in the midst of horror of her father's death. She would develop hundreds of new varieties, all of which were named for her." (Ted Schwartz with Tom Rybak,Trust No One, page 67.)
Eventually Doris became a self taught, world renowned expert in growing and caring for orchids, advancing far beyond the industry. Phalaenopsis Doris was registered at Duke Farms in 1940. Over 26,000 species of orchids descend from this hybrid.
While botanists are familiar with Doris Duke's orchid expertise, the wider public, regrettably, is not. Her hobby, blossoming in adolescence, became a profitable business. With the assistance of her grower, Bob Bean, she was able to sell orchids from her greenhouses. In addition to the Orchid Range, Doris created authentic, award winning English, Italian, French, Indian and Chinese gardens on her Somerville estate. They were open to the public by appointment. Celebrities, such as Jackie Kennedy, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and Imelda Marcos were known to visit her plant collections.
Doris, known as "the richest girl in the world", died in 1993, leaving her estate, valued at 1.3 billion dollars, to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. While the gardens have been demolished, Orchid Range thrives to this day. It was originally constructed in 1899 and designed by Boston architects, Kendall, Taylor & Stevens. Restored in 2011 to be energy efficient, it now meets LEED platinum standards. The improvements include: solar water heater, rainwater cistern, transom windows allowing for optimal air flow and a modern misting system. The focus of the display is on native plants: there are 60 native species of orchids in NJ alone, 35 of them being native to our local Piedmont Region. Visitors are delighted with the possibility of viewing 1,400 different species at various times of the year at two display pavilions: Subtropical Coastal Display and Tropical Orchid Display. Orchids are being grown in several adjacent support greenhouses.
Our favorite species at the current display is the Oncidium Shary Baby, also known by its common name, Chocolate Orchid. It has small, delicate burgundy and light pink flowers and a chocolate scent, strongest during the warmest part of the day to attract pollinators. Some hybrid orchids hold a resemblance to bearded irises or lilies, while others exude powerful fragrance. Plants cultivated on Duke Farms are used in educational demonstrations and programs "Getting to know Orchids", offered throughout the year for adults. Kid Orchid Club cultivates the love of orchids in children.
The Orchid Range is open to the public every day except Wednesday, It is a fifteen minute walk from the main parking lot of Duke Farms. For more details, please see the website: http://www.dukefarms.org
There are three interesting books on Doris Duke at the Franklin Township Public Library:Trust No One The Glamorous Life and Bizarre Death of Doris Duke Ted Schwartz with Tom Rybak,The Richest Girl in the World Stephanie Mansfield, and Too Rich The Family Secrets of Doris Duke Pony Duke and Jason Thomas.