A Tale of Two Gardens
Check out Airlie Gardens and the Arboretum of New Hanover CountyBy Leah Chester-Davis | Photos by Leah Chester-Davis
A visit to Wilmington is packed with possibilities. Among them, nearby Wrightsville beach, the charming Riverwalk, a wide range of restaurants and shops, and two must-see gardens: Airlie and the Arboretum of New Hanover County.
Airlie Gardens is the more historic and expansive of the two, with its 67 acres and massive live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and exuding coastal Southern charm. The Arboretum, much smaller with only seven acres, packs both personality and a pleasing array of plants in several types of gardens that both inspire and educate. It’s a treasure for anyone seeking to learn more about gardening or for those simply wanting to enjoy a beautiful space.
The gardens are near one another, just a mile apart, making it easy to visit both. Both offer educational experiences.
Historic Southern Charm
Airlie has a long history, dating back to the late 1800s when it was part of a larger estate and privately owned by Pembroke and Sarah Jones, who transformed it into a picturesque garden. The couple entertained such notables as Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Flagler and W.K. Vanderbilt. Later owned by the Corbett Family, Airlie played a role in the state’s first Azalea Festival and will be part of the Cape Fear Garden Club’s garden tour during the April 2022 festival.
Now owned by New Hanover County as a public garden, its size and location along Bradley Creek, its mix of live oaks, magnolias, azaleas, camellias, sculptures, tree-lined trails, and elegant vistas give it a stately appearance. It is a beautiful place to walk, or visitors can hop on a tram to travel throughout the estate while being treated to the history of the place by friendly tram operators.
Airlie is beautiful anytime of the year though it delivers springtime enchantment with thousands of azaleas, camellias, tulips and other spring blooms. The signature Airlie live oak is nearing 500 years old, and is a popular backdrop for weddings and other events.
One of the more recent additions is the Butterfly House that serves as a seasonal home to native butterflies and plants. It is a popular spot from May through mid-October for visitors of all ages.
Another point of interest is the Bottle Chapel, a tribute to the artist Minnie Jones Evans, who was employed at Airlie for 25 years, was self-taught, and became internationally recognized.
No doubt the garden inspired her, as evidenced by one of her quotes: “Green is God’s theme color — he has 600 and some shades of green.”
To enhance the educational experience of the garden, Nature Discovery Kits are available for elementary-age children or anyone who would like one. They include activities such as making a stick-bound journal and documenting observations, learning basic birdwatching skills and the “Build a Nest Challenge,” and a plant scavenger hunt.
Airlie is a favored spot for bird enthusiasts. It’s part of the North Carolina Birding Trail, offering a Coastal Region site to observe a wide range of species. The Bradley Creek Overlook is a great place to view coastal birds. Bird Hikes are available at 8 a.m. on select days and advance tickets are required.
Plan your visit
Airlie Gardens, 300 Airlie Road, Wilmington
airliegardens.org | 910-798-7700
Gardens open: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (closed on certain holidays and Mondays in winter). Advance tickets are required, unless you are a member: $9 general admission; $5 for New Hanover residents and members of military; $3 for children. Check the website for special events such as a summer concert series.
Arboretum of New Hanover County
The small Arboretum of New Hanover County is designed to be a teaching garden in a lovely setting. Extension educators, Master Gardeners, and Friends of the Arboretum are actively involved in the garden and plant clinics are held frequently to answer home gardeners’ questions.
The Arboretum features several specialty gardens, and each is equipped with educational signage that provides helpful information. Plants throughout the garden are labeled with both scientific and common names, which is a useful feature for the visitor who may want to add a plant like it to their own garden.
The raised bed garden, with a wide range of vegetables, provides a glimpse of what is possible in your own backyard, along with information on how to attract beneficial insects to your garden. A composting area is included at its edge with a how-to guide.
Other garden areas are the pollinator, native plant, herb, rain, camellia, rose, and Military Memorial Contemplation Garden. A Japanese Garden is tucked into the far back corner. Japanese lanterns and orange torii gates lend traditional features and welcome visitors to the tranquil space. The many plants — Japanese maples, Hinoki cypress, deodar cedar, satsuki azaleas, Japanese iris, sweet flag, Japanese ferns, various ornamental grasses, among others — give the visitor an idea of what can be created in a relatively small space.
Sculptures, a children’s playhouse, and brightly painted toadstools add a touch of whimsy to other spots. A StoryWalk will keep children engaged as they learn about the natural world.
Plan your visit
Arboretum of New Hanover County, 6206 Oleander Drive, Wilmington
arboretum.nhcgov.com | 910-798-7660
Gardens open: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Free admission. Check the website for information on special events throughout the year.
About the AuthorCarolina Country Contributing Editor Leah Chester-Davis loves to explore North Carolina. Her business, Chester-Davis Communications (chester-davis.com), specializes in food, farm, gardening and lifestyle brands and organizations.
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