On a trip to North Carolina last summer I found myself in Wilmington, where the annual Azalea Festival is a source of local pride. Unfortunately the blooming season had passed months before my visit. But even without the celebration-worthy spectacle of a mass of azaleas in full bloom, Airlie delivers plenty of memorable sights throughout its immersive collection of gardens that sit along the peaceful Bradley Creek. Functioning both as a preserved piece of tidal marshland and a a series of formal gardens, Arlie is infused with a relaxed, southern hospitality.
As is often the case with formal gardens, Arlie was originally the private residence of Sara and Pembrook Jones, who hired a renown German landscape artist to design gardens suitable for entertaining their many guests. In their original splendor, the gardens were so impressive that the owners would open their gates to the public when the azaleas bloomed each year. Many of the colorful species of azalea and camellia, which overflow in abundance through the garden, are native to the area and can be traced back to their original plantings from the early 1900s. When the property suffered damage from hurricanes and fell into neglect in the late 1990s, it was almost sold off and turned into luxury housing before the county swooped in and saved it at the last minute.
Repetitive storms and flooding have felled many of the older trees and original plantings on the property, yet towering above them all remains the massive Airlie Oak. This arboreal giant adorned with swaths of Spanish moss and resurrection fern has withstood countless storms and kept watch over this land since the late 1500s. A wide lawn edged with seasonal plantings and the famed azalea bushes gives the monumental 400-plus-year-old tree a dramatic setting. It really is a sight to behold, and is probably the second biggest draw to the gardens (after the azaleas, of course).
I found the most magical spot on the property to be the Bradley Creek Overlook, a thin strip of land between the large creek and a freshwater lake. Here you can stand and be surrounded on both sides by water with an invigorating breeze that was very welcome in the late August heat of my visit. Twisted branches hung with moss droop over the lake, offering perches for several dozen great egrets on both edges of the water. There is also a pier that stretches out into the creek and allows for dramatic views across the water and back at the shoreline of the gardens.
Several specific sections of the garden displayed a unique style or theme to their planting, but still managed to flow cohesively into the overall layout. The Pergola Garden is perhaps the most formal of these, and offered inviting views from both within its borders and from other vantage points across the lake. I was quite taken with the arrow-leaved colocasia plants darting out over the clipped grass pathways. This narrow, orderly garden culminates in a fountained terrace encircled with short boxwood bushes, with steps that disappear into the lake.
Final Rating: One of the rewarding things about a garden is how the seasons each have a unique effect on the overall experience. While I was not able to appreciate the dazzling display of thousands of azalea bushes in bloom, I was able to especially appreciate other qualities of the garden, like the extensive shoreline and the tiny church and crumbling graveyard nestled in the middle of the property. The wide-open, accessible pathways invite a number of visitors, and yet there are many hidden garden corners and inviting comfortable chairs to fully experience the tranquility that the garden has to offer. If you are in the area, you have most likely already been, but if you are just passing though it is definitely worth a visit. FOUR BLOOM RATING