If you are looking to get a taste of spring, there is nothing quite as spectacular as the azalea gardens of the southeast. Now don’t be shy, these extroverted flowers will make your heart sing songs of the south. Azaleas are a member of the Ericaceae family and of the genus Rhododendron. These colorful plants originated in China and Japan and made their way to the United States via England, France, and Germany around the 1830’s.
The first American azaleas were planted on a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, and since have been associated with southern gardens. While these plants can be grown in many areas across the United States they prefer moist well drained acidic soils (pH 4.5 -6.0), and partial shade. A common mistake made by inexperienced gardeners is planting them in full sun.
Our first stop on the tour is the gardens at Tryon Palace, located in New Bern, North Carolina. Once home to Royal Governor William Tyron, the original home was designed by London architect, John Hawks, and completed in 1770. It was considered to be excessively exuberant by the locals, hence referred to as the Palace. The original structure was destroyed in a fire in 1798, then rebuilt after a major campaign in 1959. The style of the original gardens is unknown, but the sixteen acres of gardens that surround the palace were designed by Morley Williams in the pre-colonel revival style that was popular in the 1950’s. This garden is heavily inspired by French design with lots of symmetry and an ornately designed knot garden. The azaleas gardens can be found blooming in the spring in naturalized beds along with thousands of tulip bulbs. The garden backs up to astounding views of the Albemarle Sound and is within easy walking distance of nearby shops and restaurants including the Pepsi Store, where Pepsi Cola was born.
Further south towards Wilmington, North Carolina, near the Cape Fear River, Airlie Gardens, built in 1886 on 67 acres, is well known for its magnificent displays of azaleas, live oaks, and camellias. Home to the Airlie Oak, the largest Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) in North Carolina, estimated to be over four hundred years old and over 100,000 azaleas you won’t want to miss. Bring your bike and enjoy the many trails this garden has to offer.
Between Myrtle Beach and Pawleys Island in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, you will find Brookgreen Gardens, a 9,100 acre former rice plantation. This garden has one of the largest collections of outdoor sculptures in America on display located on 551 acres surrounded by azaleas, camellias, and live oaks. The sculpture of the Fountain of the Muses, is particularly amusing, capturing the Greek/Roman mythological story of the nine muses. In addition to the garden there is a low country zoo featuring native and domestic animals.
Just a few miles down the road in Charleston, South Carolina, you won’t want to miss touring Middleton Place Gardens. This plantation is America’s oldest landscaped garden created in 1741, by Henry Middleton, using the design principles of Andre’ Le Notre creator of the gardens at Vaux Le Vicomte and the Palace of Versailles in France. It sits beautifully on the Ashley River with lawn sculpted terraces that follow the contours and descend down to the water’s edge. Take a stroll along the water and be astounded by the blooming azalea gardens that cover the hillside underneath the trees, the view will take your breath away. While you’re visiting the garden visit the museum and restaurant. The property has been in the same family for over 320 years. Two of the three original buildings remain on the property. The original homestead was burned down by Union Troops two months before the end of the Civil War.
For the last stop head inland to Pine Mountain, Georgia, home of Callaway Gardens. The gardens are a part of a much larger resort that features golf, water sports, and hiking. The gardens were originally developed in the 1950’s after the owner Carson Callaway discovered a rare native azalea on the property. Since then, the azalea gardens showcase numerous native and non-native azaleas along with other themed gardens including a victory and butterfly garden.
WHEN YOU GO:
Tyron Palace Gardens
529 South Front Street
New Bern, NC 28562
300 Airlie Road
Wilmington, NC 28403
931 Brookgreen Drive
Murrells Inlet, SC 29576
Middleton Place Gardens
4300 Ashley River Road
Charleston, SC 29414
17800 US Hwy 27
Pine Mountain, GA 31822
Michelle Wallace is a freelance garden writer with over twenty years of professional experience in the gardening world. Her best days are spent getting lost in a garden.