I love the ocean and the sand. But one year I decided to skip the beach and traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina’s gardens instead. Wow, was I surprised.
Wilmington has a number of beautiful gardens, making it a garden destination anytime of the year.
I like unusual plants so it was easy to pick my first stop – Carolina Beach State Park and its collection of Venus flytraps. These most amazing carnivorous plants are native only within 60 to 75 miles of Wilmington so you won’t find them growing in the wild anywhere else in the world. These can be hard to spot (each is just a few inches in size) but fortunately I was there in May when they were blooming. Their tall white flowers make them easy to see along the forest floor. When not in bloom you can find the flytraps – that look like clam shells with teeth – along the sunny paths in the pocosin area of the park’s Flytrap Trail. However, you won’t find signage pointing the way. With only about 1,000 flytraps remaining in the park, they try not to draw attention to these. It’s somewhat of a scavenger hunt to find the flytraps, but well worth it when you do. You will also find sundews, pitcher plants, bladderworts and butterworts growing near by, along with huge stands of loblolly, longleaf and pond pines. The park offers free carnivorous plant hikes at 10am on Saturday and Sunday from May through September.
Once I had seen one stand of carnivorous plants I had to see more, so I made my way to the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden. Stanley Rehder was a horticulturalist and Wilmington native who spent his life cultivating these plants. When he died in 2012 the city dedicated his outdoor lab as a park. Located behind a school, the garden entrance has a paved, level path that leads to an observation deck overlooking an amazing concentration of thousands of flytraps and pitcher plants within the small three-quarters of an acre garden. You can also venture into the garden via stepping-stones for up close views. Take note: The 2013 theft of more than 1,000 flytraps from the garden prompted the North Carolina legislature to pass a law making removal of Venus flytraps a felony.
The city has developed a Venus Flytrap Trail where you can see carnivorous plants in the wild at nearly a dozen locations. Pick up the brochure at the city’s visitors center.
“Follow the sunflowers,” was the advice from the girl at the Airlie Gardens ticket desk. This advice made it easy to know where to start my tour (at the Seasonal Garden) of this jewel of Wilmington. You can spend a day here, especially when the summer concert series is underway the first and third Friday evenings of every month May through September. Airlie Gardens started in 1901 and today is 67 acres of pure botanical garden enjoyment. Massive moss draped trees, including the Airlie Oak – North Carolina’s state champion live oak dating back to 1545 – line the level, mostly paved paths in the garden. Or you can use the garden’s tram for quick on and off stops.
A few of my favorite spots are the Pergola Garden, a serene stop adjacent to Airlie Lake. The circa-1900 pergola here is made of native tabby, a mixture of lime, water, sand and Wrightsville Sound shells. A sweep of stairs leads to the water’s edge.
The Bottle Chapel showcases one of the most unusual uses of empty bottles that one will see. It’s made of over 2,800 bottles in a mosaic design, all a tribute to artist Minnie Evans.
Airlie Gardens is known for its springtime gardens and a collection of over 100,000 azaleas and countless camellia cultivars. And throughout the property are formal display areas that bloom and provide color year-round. The visitor’s center includes a small gift shop and some informative history panels about the garden.
My visit to the New Hanover County Arboretum resulted in my biggest garden surprise. It’s much larger (7 acres) than most North Carolina Cooperative Extension gardens and the design is beautiful. Over a dozen different sections feature rose, aquatic, Japanese, herb, butterfly, children’s, and vegetable gardens, plus several greenhouses, a koi pond and an ability garden with raised beds. And since it’s a teaching garden, the signage is great. Bring a lunch as picnics are welcomed. The Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tour – held in spring throughout Wilmington – has funded many of the gardens at the arboretum.
Several historic gardens are near downtown Wilmington. The Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens, circa 1770, has seven separate garden areas behind the house and includes an orchard with figs and pomegranates, a crabapple espalier, and a parterre with trimmed boxwood. The 1852 Latimer House is surrounded by a restored Victorian garden. Large 150-year old magnolia trees anchor the landscape and Victorian gardens of the Bellamy Mansion, an antebellum home built between 1859 and 1861. And throughout the historic district charming homes with lovely gardens beckon you to look over the garden gates.
There are also several smaller gardens worthy of a visit next time you visit this coastal town.
Okay, so you don’t immediately think “garden” when you visit a cemetery. And some might find it creepy. But if you look beyond the graves, you’ll discover cemeteries are filled with flora and fauna. Oakdale Cemetery, started in 1852, is 100 acres of massive Darlington oaks, landscaped burial plots and a year-round season of blooms, including many historic plantings. Post Civil War, cemeteries became garden settings where families would spend the day with deceased relatives. It was also a way to escape the city’s heat and noise prior to today’s public parks system. They wanted nice surroundings, so they added stone benches, iron settees, fences, and garden beds to the graves. Some added favorite plants from far away places, which is why there is a mountain laurel in Oakdale. Early grave markers gave a nod to gardening, and one unique style that stands out is the treestone. Popular from 1880s into the 1900s, treestones were a product of the Woodmen of the World fraternal insurance society that gave free grave markers to its members. Each tree-looking stone is carved with ornate symbols of ivy, flowers and wildlife to tell a story about the deceased. Oakdale Cemetery offers a number of guided tours spring through fall with details online.
The entire campus of UNC-Wilmington is considered an arboretum with many garden spots to visit.
While you are on the campus, take time to visit the Heritage Garden housed near the quad. Stately live oaks stand like sentinels on either side of a great lawn, and garden beds are filled with plants to create an old fashioned Southern garden. The Bluethenthal Wildflower Preserve is tucked into the dense woods near the student union. Level paths guide you through a forest of towering pines, small ponds, and a forest floor filled with local wildflowers.
Don’t let the location of the Lower Cape Fear Hospice Heritage Garden keep you from visiting. After all, gardening is a healing activity. Meandering paths connected by a series of charming footbridges over bubbling water features lead to various themed garden rooms named in honor of loved ones. Of special note is a labyrinth created in the shape of a tree.
The outside of the Cape Fear Museum is a park-like landscape with interactive exhibits that tell the story of the region’s natural resources. Transformed from an old parking lot, it has many garden areas plus a rain garden. Step inside to visit the museum’s Michael Jordan Discovery Gallery (Michael moved to Wilmington in first grade). Divided into themed areas, each section reveals information on the Lower Cape Fear environment in a fun, hands-on way for young and old alike.
Birding at Wrightsville Beach
When you are finished touring gardens, a birding cruise with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours offers an up close view of the wildlife around Masonboro Island and Bradley Creek. Be prepared to spot Great Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Black-bellied Plover, and even a Bald Eagle, along with typical beach birds like Pelicans, Gulls, Sanderlings, and Terns. While birds are the highlight of the cruise, you will also learn about the area’s environment that makes it such a wildlife-rich region. The tours are available year-round with reservations required. The company’s boats are docked across from the Blockade Runner Hotel.
WHEN YOU GO:
A stay at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort on Wrightsville Beach includes the beach and gardens. A team of talented gardeners has installed a multitude of lush plantings along the hotel’s outdoor pathways, and indoors features lovely fresh floral arrangements throughout the hotel. Open-air dining overlooks these gardens and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Rosehill Inn bed and breakfast was built in 1848 as an elegant home. The innkeepers today offer a warm and inviting place to stay in the heart of Wilmington’s historic district. The six guestrooms each include a private bath and period furnishings. A full breakfast is offered each morning, along with many extras like sherry and brandy in the evening.
There is no shortage of dining options in Wilmington.
PinPoint Restaurant in downtown is one of the newest restaurants in town to receive national acclaim. Chef Dean Neff’s menu changes daily based on local seasonal offerings, and the results are spectacular. He blends basic foods into delectable creations that leave you marking your calendar for a return visit. Other downtown dining options include The Basics and Chops Deli, plus The Dockside near the causeway to Wrightsville Beach.
The Oceanic Restaurant on Wrightsville Beach is the place for seafood and an ocean view. The Pilot House restaurant along downtown’s Riverwalk includes outdoor dining and a view of the Cape Fear River. A cute garden shop, A Proper Garden, is just steps away from the Pilot House and worth a visit.
Other garden stops in Wilmington include a 5-mile drive around Greenfield Lake, especially in spring when the azaleas that ring the lake are in bloom. The Harbor Island Garden Club has a one-acre garden, including a pink garden celebrating breast cancer survivors and their families, on the west end of Wrightsville Beach Park. Members of the Harbor Island Garden Club maintain the garden.
Consider planning your visit during two of Wilmington’s garden-themed events. The Azalea Festival in April celebrates spring Southern style. It features music, art, food, a street fair, parade, and home and garden tours. Art in the Arboretum is the fall fundraiser for the New Hanover County Arboretum. The gardens are filled with music and art vendors showcasing everything from prints and pottery to sculpture.
For more information about Wilmington and its gardens, visit www.WilmingtonandBeaches.com.
Featured image – Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden / Beverly Hurley