While a stroll around Duke Farms, the sprawling estate just off Route 206 in Hillsborough, reveals many delights for the senses, the Orchid Range—an elegant, domed conservatory—is the showstopper. A glass and steel masterpiece, it’s home to almost 1,300 exotic varieties of colorful and fragrant orchids.
Closed this winter because of Covid-19, the Orchid Range reopened in April. (Social-distancing restrictions remain in place.) Last year, even with limited hours and limited capacity, the estate welcomed 110,000 visitors, says Nora DiChiara, director of programs and strategic planning for Duke Farms. That was down from 170,000 in 2019, when the Orchid Range was open year-round.
Duke Farms’s 2,740 acres of farm and woodlands were originally owned by James Buchanan Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Company. With amazing foresight, Duke augmented the estate’s rolling hills with nine man-made lakes, stunning stone structures and meandering pathways, while keeping it a working farm. Upon his death in 1925, Duke’s daughter, Doris, became the sole owner.
A renowned socialite, philanthropist and horticulturalist, Doris Duke continued to nurture the estate, adding sculpture gardens and acquiring additional adjacent property.
The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which provides all funding for Duke Farms, was formed upon Doris Duke’s death in 1993, with the stipulation that the land be used for agriculture, horticulture and research.
“We’re open to the public, but we are a private property, not a state or municipal park,” says DiChiara. More than 1,000 acres are open to visitors for educational purposes, ecological research and exploration. The estate’s rolling, paved pathways welcome walkers and cyclists. The property also continues to operate as a farm with chickens, cattle, goats and fields of vegetables.
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The orchids remain the main attraction. The ornate Orchid Range is a site to behold; the two main buildings—one tropical and one subtropical—were designed by noted architects Kendall Taylor & Stevens in 1899. The ornamental buildings were renovated in 2012 to be energy efficient and environmentally friendly; both are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certified, the highest level attainable.
With the pandemic, the Orchid Range faces a double challenge: keeping both the visitors and the orchids safe. For visitor safety, doors and windows are kept open for ventilation. “But if it gets super cold,” says DiChiara, “the orchids will die.” The temperature ranges from 50 to 85 degrees in the different conservatory sections.
Aside from the two main structures, the range includes nine additional greenhouses for propagating—originally, palms, potted trees, ferns and orchids, but now, strictly orchids. Depending on the weather, the propagating greenhouses are also open to visitors.
As for the orchids, they are always ready to put on a show. “Different varieties bloom at different times, so visiting any time is optimal, as long as the range is open,” says DiChiara.
Duke Farms is located at 1112 Dukes Parkway West in Hillsborough. As of April 2021, the property is generally open to the public Tuesday–Saturday, 8:30 am–6 pm. (Days and times are subject to change due to Covid-19 considerations.) Admission is free, but Saturday visitors will need to reserve an entry pass (per car) online. Passes are released two weeks in advance. If the weather drops below 50 degrees, the estate may close. Call 908-722-3700 or check dukefarms.org before you go.