These are gardens I’ve been to in the U.S. South that I believe are worth a visit. I’d highly advise double-checking on hours before visiting since not all are open every day or year round.
Location: 300 Airlie Road, Wilmington, N.C.
Overview: Got its start as the estate of Pembroke and Sarah Jones, who entertained lavishly in the early 1920s and planted half a million azaleas, 5,000 camellias and many specimen trees. Now operated by New Hanover County, it’s transformed into a small but nice public garden.
Highlights: The signature piece is a replica of a chapel that’s made out of multi-colored glass bottles. Unique and hard to do justice by word. Besides azaleas and camellias, there are seasonal flower beds, a more formal pergola garden and the “Airlie Oak,” a live oak dating to the mid-1500s.
George’s Take: A good effort so far, but with 67 acres to work with, there’s a ton of potential if the investment can be made. It’s prime when the azaleas are in bloom (April).
Contact info: www.airliegardens.org. 910-798-7700.
BOONE HALL PLANTATION AND GARDENS
Location: 1235 Long Point Road, Mt. Pleasant, S.C., near Charleston.
Overview: Still a working plantation after 320 years, growing fruits and vegetables for its own market on nearby Route 17 instead of the cotton and pecans of yesteryear. Owned since 1955 by McRae family, who opened it to give visitors a taste of 1800s plantation life.
Highlights: Signature is ¾-mile allee of live oaks lining entry drive. Very nice network of butterfly-shaped beds on either side of spacious front yard, tram tours of fields and Black History educational exhibits in each of nine original brick slave cabins.
George’s Take: The oaks are stunning, the Colonial-style front gardens are beautiful, but I was most touched by the stories told in the slave cabins. My favorite of the Charleston plantation gardens.
Contact info: www.boonehallplantation.com. 843-884-4371.
Location: U.S. Highway 17, about 30 minutes south of Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Overview: Philanthropist Archer Huntington and his sculptor wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington, pieced together four one-time rice plantations (nearly 10,000 acres in all) to create this superbly designed show place. It has the nation’s largest outdoor display of American-made figurative sculptures with more than 400 of them placed in beautiful gardens and natural settings throughout.
Highlights: Obviously, the sculptures – especially the larger-than-life bronze sculpture of Dionysus and the signature display “Fountain of the Muses,” with male figures running in unison over a pond of spouting fountains. Also stately 250-year live oaks, numerous formal water features, native plantings, a mirthful and colorful children’s garden and plenty of classic Southern plants, such as palmetto, camellia, crape myrtle, palms and magnolias.
George’s Take: This is way more than a sculpture garden. The layout and design is top rate with paths leading into room after room of awe. This is a world-class garden that hardly anyone knows about. It’s one of those places where I was saying, “Wow,” every 5 minutes. I’d rate it in my top dozen.
Contact info: www.brookgreen.org. 843-235-6000.
CHARLESTON TEA PLANTATION
Location: 6617 Maybank Highway, Wadmalaw Island, S.C., about 20 miles southwest of Charleston.
Overview: You’ll only find one plant on display here: Camellia sinensis, the plant that’s used to make tea. This is America’s only tea farm, and it’s got hundreds of thousands of camellias that are harvested to make American Classic Tea.
Highlights: Tour the on-site factory to see how tea is dried and processed, then hop on the tour bus for a guided drive through the fields. Not your typical garden tour, but it’s a fascinating plant story that most of us know little about. Right down the road is the “Angel Oak,” a native live oak that’s thought to be 1,400 years old and the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi.
George’s Take: My wife especially loved this place. We take tea for granted and never give a thought to where it comes from. You’ll leave here wanting to grow your own camellias… and toting a bag of American Classic Tea from the gift shop.
Contact info: www.charlestonteaplantation.com. 843-559-0383.
Location: 1411 National Park Drive, Manteo, N.C., on Roanoke Island, within Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
Overview: Set near where Sir Walter Raleigh’s “lost colony” landed in 1587, this 10-acre garden honors the time period with gardens planted in Elizabethan style. Planned and operated by the Garden Club of North Carolina.
Highlights: Beautiful sunken garden with sheared hollies, flower-filled parterres in the shape of bells and boats, pleached crape myrtles and a magnificent, antique Italian fountain in the center. Also a Shakespeare herb garden, a Queen’s Tea Garden with antique roses, a wooded walk with native plantings throughout and a live oak pre-dating the colonists’ landing.
George’s Take: This one was a pleasant surprise… better and more interesting than I anticipated. Not a huge place, but it’s nicely designed and a pleasant stroll. That sunken garden alone is worth the visit.
Contact info: www.elizabethangardens.org. 252-473-3234.
J.C. RAULSTON ARBORETUM
Location: 4415 Beryl Road, Raleigh, N.C.
Overview: Built and maintained by North Carolina State University, this has a ton of plant diversity packed into its 8 acres. It’s primarily a research and teaching garden with more than 5,000 species on display. Named after the late J.C. Raulston, an NC State professor who founded the arboretum in 1976.
Highlights: Most impressive are the 300-foot-long borders of perennials and mixed plantings – color and cutting-edge varieties as far as you can see. It’s also a site for trials of annual flowers (new ones every year) and has theme gardens such as a white garden, a rose garden, a xeric garden and an Asian valley, plus collections of maples, hollies, redbuds, nandina and more.
George’s Take: I’m a sucker for cutting-edge plants and the latest, greatest variety of just about anything, so this place was right up my alley. If you’re a stroller rather than a studier, you’ll think it’s just OK.
Contact info: www.ncsu.edu/jcraulstonarboretum. 919-515-3132.
MAGNOLIA PLANTATION AND GARDENS
Location: 3550 Ashley River Road, Charleston, S.C., about 9 miles northwest of the city, just down the road from Middleton Place (see below).
Overview: Still home to the 11th generation of the Drayton family, this 500-acre plantation along the Ashley River dates to 1676. About 30 acres are set aside as public gardens – mostly in wooded areas with winding mulched paths.
Highlights: Ever see a black swamp with cypress? If you saw the film, “The Swamp Thing,” you saw Magnolia’s Audubon Swamp Garden. Take a nature boat ride through the swamps (or a nature tram ride through the grounds) and allow a couple of hours to go back to the 1700s as you stroll the woods. Camellias and azaleas are particular stars, plus there’s a Biblical garden, a greenhouse with plants of Barbados and a petting zoo.
George’s Take: If you prefer natural settings to botanical gardens with labeled plants, you’ll love it. It reminds me of Delaware’s Mt. Cuba Center, except with Southern plants and swamps.
Contact info: www.magnoliaplantation.com. 843-571-1266.
Location: 4300 Ashley River Road, Charleston, S.C., about 14 miles northwest of the city and just up the road from Magnolia Plantation.
Overview: Billed as “America’s oldest landscaped gardens,” this old-South estate dates to 1675 – just 5 years after the first English colonists arrived in South Carolina. In its heyday was owned by four generations of the state’s esteemed Middleton family (governor, signer of Declaration of Independence, etc.)
Highlights: Geometric layout of a series of formal beds that end with a terraced lawn overlooking two symmetrical butterfly-shaped ponds. Also has a cool bald-cypress swamp, a rice field (ever seen one of those?), live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, a large camellia collection, a nice café serving Southern foods and a living-history stableyard with animals and Colonial crafts.
George’s Take: Not a huge palette of plants, but the design, scale, precision and peaceful beauty are highly impressive. The stableyard adds a slice of Williamsburg. All very well maintained.
Contact info: www.middletonplace.org. 843-556-6020.
SARAH DUKE GARDENS
Location: 426 Anderson St., Durham, N.C., on the campus of Duke University.
Overview: 55 acres that are called the “crown jewel” of Duke University. Once a debris-filled ravine, part of the land was turned into several flower gardens in the 1930s. It’s since grown to four main gardens.
Highlights: The best section is what’s called The Terraces – a sloping acre or two that’s been terraced, stepped and planted with all sorts of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. It overlooks a pond at the bottom. The other three areas are a native plant walk in the woods, an Asiatic arboretum and a water feature with more formal beds around the Doris Duke Welcome Center.
George’s Take: The Terraces are colorful, interesting, impressive and not quite like anything I’ve seen anywhere else. I also really liked the gardens and more formal water feature behind the visitor center.
Contact info: www.hr.duke.edu/dukegardens. 919-684-3698.