Leafy glades and other roadside attractions

Story by Lois Carol Wheatley. Photo by Bill Russ.

Wilmington is in Zone 8A. That has absolutely no meaning for most people but it is a matter of life and death to the city's trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials, and only somewhat less dire to die-hard horticulturalists and backyard gardeners in the Cape Fear region.

This particular USDA zone designation essentially means any plant species that can be expected to survive here can tolerate winter temperatures no lower than 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Certain types of palm trees live here, pretty much stretched to their northermost reach, and Spanish Moss drips from live oak trees—also something you can't expect to see much farther up the coast.

Other distinctive regions of the world share our Zone 8 designation: Edinburgh, Scotland; London, England; Paris, France; Madrid, Spain; Milan, Italy; and Antwerp, Belgium. These are pretty much the garden spots of Europe and the UK. On this continent, other Zone 8 regions are Atlanta, Georgia; Dallas, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Tucson, Arizona.

Obviously latitude plays only one part in the multi-faceted big picture, and a Wilmington garden will differ significantly from gardens in far-flung Zone 8 places because so many variables are not accounted for in the zone designations, such as how quickly the temperatures plummet to 10 degrees and how long they stay there. Also the plant life considers hours and intensity of sunlight and peak summertime temperatures, soil types and annual rainfall, and they discuss among themselves the enormous influence of the ocean in this area along with the relative presence or absence of asphalt.

Azaleas are practically the symbol of Wilmington, inspiring the annual North Carolina Azalea Festival in early April, and the abundance of long-leaf pine trees launched a thriving colonial turpentine trade. Cypress trees line downtown's Greenfield Lake and the main thoroughfare through the historic district is practically an arboretum, with ancient and venerable shade trees dating back to colonial days.

One of our region's most distinctive native plants is the Venus Fly Trap, not an item that grows in very many other areas—in fact, almost nowhere else. This unique little carnivorous plant has pod-like jaws and filament-type teeth that lures and trap insects, digests them right there in their mouth-like jaws, that open wide again for their next victim. Can it be the climate, the soil, the tasty insects? They're not saying.

Somewhere along the line our southern gardens have gotten away from their traditional role—to produce the occasional tasty vegetable—and developed other useful functions. New Hanover County Arboretum is headquarters to the county extension service and the master gardeners program, with its primary goal to be a hands-on learning experience for a spectrum of visitors from pre-schoolers to senior citizens.

The elegantly landscaped campus of University of North Carolina at Wilmington rolls out the green carpet to parents and prospective students, stimulating new growth that in recent years has spun off into a couple of satellite conservation areas.

Two of Wilmington's major tourist attractions are Airlie Gardens near Wrightsville Beach (on the sparkling banks of Bradley Creek) and Orton Plantation in Winnabow (on the shores of the Cape Fear River). Both attract hordes of paying customers as well as flocks of birds and herds of wildlife.

Finally, a check-in with the Cape Fear Garden Club is as good as a soil pH test any day.

More Information:

Terms: Gardens of Wilmington

Gardens of Wilmington

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