Each new bloom steeped in the oldest of traditions

Story by Lois Carol Wheatley. Photo courtesy of Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau

The road signs say, "Welcome to Wilmington: Home of the N.C. Azalea Festival." That pretty much gives you an idea about the top priority in this town.

Everybody in the geographic vicinity has an agenda for the annual North Carolina Azalea Festival in early April. The Cape Fear Garden Club wants to see the entire population down on its hands and knees, going at those roadside flower beds with gloves and trowels. The Historic Wilmington Foundation wants to foster an appreciation of the city's proud heritage, before yet another venerable structure is toppled by a wrecking ball.

Any number of local groups and clubs have turned the occasion into their own annual convention, and this is as good a time as any for a prospective member to come check them out. You could easily go home with a brand new membership in the Wilmington Art Association, the Seagate Saddle Club or the Lower Cape Fear Coin Club.

Each annual festival has its own mix of constants among a sea of variables. The events you can count on, year after year, are the parade, the street fair, a circus, a historic homes tour, a garden tour, an art show, a horse show, a coin show, musical performances, fireworks, and a flock of lovely young ladies—they've become the veritable symbols of the festival and are known as Azalea Belles—all gussied up in frilly hoop skirts and strolling about twirling parasols.

Variables can be tossed into the mix as, for example, the cake challenge for the first time in 2010, which could be back for another festival and, then again, could vanish from sight forever, leaving behind only a few crumbs on a plate. The shag contest at the Hilton is another prime example of a festival event that has come and gone on the festival schedule—and might just as easily as not come dancing back in. A local variety/talent show takes the occasional hiatus, but lately rejoined the street fair on one of several makeshift stages constructed throughout the downtown area.

Of course the azaleas themselves may or may not choose to participate, an individual decision based solely upon their own fleeting whims. But with so many thousands of flowering shrubs thriving throughout the Cape Fear region, thrilled to live in such a temperate zone with such agreeably acidic soil, at least a few of them are pretty well guaranteed to go with the program.

Azaleas bloom in pink, purple and white, and those are also the usual colors worn by the Azalea Belles, those pretty young girls with the parasols. They bear the promise of spring, rebirth, rejuvenation, and youthful spirits running high. Notwithstanding San Francisco in the '60s, this has to be close to the record number of people wearing flowers in their hair.

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Azalea Festival

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