Airlie Gardens

The expression "keeping up with the Joneses" started here. At the turn of the 20th century railroad magnate Pembroke Jones and his wife Sarah so very lavishly landscaped the 67 acres of Airlie Gardens that the neighbors simply couldn't hope to compete.

About a century later, a grant from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, a commitment from New Hanover County, and the cooperation of the previous owner (the Corbett family) opened this garden spot to the public, now a major attraction near Wrightsville Beach, with ten acres of freshwater lakes, 100,000 azaleas, and a 462-year-old oak tree.

You'll get a pamphlet at the front gate that walks you through a self-guided tour, with the following tour stops:

1. A butterfly garden consists of flowers known to work strenuously and to the extent of their natural abilities to supply nectar to swallowtails, whites, orangetips, sulphurs, harvesters, hairstreaks, blues, metalmarks, brushfoots and skippers. They're like migratory flowers that come to visit with the garden's stationary flowers—butterfly bush, Joe Pye weed, lantana, purple coneflower, black-eyed susan, etc.

Airlie opened its prized Butterfly House in 2010, so you'll need to bring a good camera with a fast shutter. National Geographic is waiting.

2. Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden. The interesting part of this section is that Minnie Evans didn't create all this sculpture. She was Airlie's gatekeeper from 1949 to 1974, and local artists put this collection together—a bottle chapel with surrounding metal, mosaic and ceramic sculptures—as a tribute to her talent and accomplishments. Minnie was married to Julius Evans, a coachman employed by Pembroke Jones, and had a vision in 1935 that artistically inspired her to take up color, mysticism and symmetry.

3. Showcase gardens might be considered the epicenter of the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing, with only one minor flaw in that fundamentally unshakable theory. It was the Corbett family that purchased and installed the ornamental fountain at the center of this very formal landscape design.

4. The pergola was built in the early 1900s in the classic Italian style with coquina wood, and the gardeners on staff ensure that the surrounding flowerbeds are in bloom. For those of you great unwashed who don't know what a pergola is, think of it as the latest hybrid of a garden structure species that includes the gazebo, the trellis and the arbor, with supports holding up a lattice work where climbing vines are encouraged to grow.

5. "Mystery grave," occupant unknown, or at least no one is taking seriously the purported name of "John Hill," which sounds like an alias to be used at a sleazy motel. While best guesses date this grave back to the 18th century, there is also a popular theory that it could be the final resting place for one of Napoleon's 12 marshalls forced to emigrate to this country after the Battle of Waterloo in the early 19th century.

6. Camelia Garden. Airlie claims a collection of over 100,000 azaleas, but its estimate of camellia cultivars is "countless." That could mean more camellias than azaleas, or vice versa, but in any event it certainly means color throughout the year, since camellias have now been bred to bloom in any color at any time. Airlie is considered "one of the top 50 camellia gardens in the country." Incidentally, this lovely flowering shrub is the source of most types of tea, and hails from China.

7. The spring garden is still good to go through summer and fall. Its "bones" essentially are a tranquil fountain and surrounding flowerbeds, designed and installed in the early 1900s.

8. Airlie Lake is where most of the garden's prize-winning photography has produced the kind of photos that make you wonder whether or not you have the image right-side-up. That makes it a most literally reflective place, and doubles the number of flowers and birds hanging around. The banks of the lake are lined with azaleas, making this is a spot that is most near blinding in early April. If anyone can beat that incredible scenic view, they'll have the Joneses right where they want them.

9. The Airlie Oak began as an acorn circa 1545. It is now a gargantuan historic tree against which all other historic trees are measured. Other whoppers can be found downtown and in areas where developers have not yet ventured, but this is indisputably the granddaddy of the geographic vicinity. Get your acorns while they last.

For those with an environmental bent, a spot off the beaten trail appears on the map as a "water-wise garden" that uses native plants and other management practices to filter storm water runoff. To see this feature you'll have to hike a fair distance, peeling off the guided tour at the mystery grave. The trail loops around a section of the lake and continues on beyond the conservation demonstration to backtrack to the showcase gardens.

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Airlie Gardens

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