Norfolk Botanical Gardens
Norfolk Botanical Garden
It was refreshing to learn that the sprawling Norfolk Botanical Garden did not start as the property of some rich family like so many other grand horticultural attractions. To know that the opulence on display was not something created only for the wealthy makes strolling through garden after garden of this grand estate a more rewarding experience.
It all began with the azalea: which a knowledgeable city official identified as a plant perfectly suited for the Norfolk climate with showy, colorful blooms capable of drawing crowds. A WPA grant in 1938 paid for the hard work of a crew consisting of two hundred African American women who cleared the land, and it funded the original plantings. Thousands of these flowering shrubs formed the framework around which the garden grew; originally the place was simply known as the Azalea Garden.
Unfortunately, I was unable to visit in time for the peak bloom, but the effect must be simply jaw-dropping, as azalea bushes can be found in almost every corner of the expansive property. There is an entire shaded section of the garden populated with endless azalea bushes interspersed with their larger cousins, the equally ostentatious rhododendrons. Walking one narrow path through recently-bloomed hedges that towered above me on either side, I could only imagine the thrill of being almost literally swallowed alive by azaleas!
Manmade canals cut through the center of the gardens, with different sections accessible by crossing stone bridges over waterways. So many garden views were made that much more poetic with the gently flowing water rolling by bordered by grassy banks, trees, or mounds of flowering azaleas reflected back up at themselves. In fact, water is a major part of the Norfolk garden experience. It wasn’t until looking at a map later that I realized the property was surrounded by Lake Whitehurst on three sides.
One such garden whose charm is elevated by its prime canal-side locale is the Bicentennial Rose Garden. Over 3,000 roses in every color stretch out, row after row enticing you further into their domain. A few gazebos and a raised viewing platform can be found among the bushes, every surface and column crawling with some variety of rose demanding my attention to either breath in their intoxicating aroma or to photograph incessantly.
The garden transitions from formal plantings into a woodland setting with several fountains and other statuary waiting to be discovered in various clearings. My favorite of these clearings was the grand Renaissance Court, where stone balustrades lined stepped grassy terraces. The whole scene overlooks a dramatic pool with flowering bushes that drape down over its stone walls that can be seen reflected in the dark water below. This theatrical setting actually doubles as a stage where each year someone is crowned Queen Azalea as part of the International Azalea Festival.
Final Rating: I haven’t even mentioned half of the gardens you can find while wandering along the many pathways throughout the seemingly-endless property. Even with a map in my hand I felt slightly disoriented, and at times I wasn’t quite sure where I had been and what I had or had not seen, but everything I managed to see was uniformly impressive. Other highlights include the appealing open areas of the Flowering Arboretum, the expansive collection of crepe myrtle, or the orderly arrangement of water features and flowers in the Sara Lee Baker Perennial Garden. There really is quite a variety of gardens and open areas to explore—even a massive children’s garden. But above all, a visit during peak azalea season would be an unforgettable floral experience. FIVE BLOOM RATING