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Glorious Gardens

Six Southern cities and show gardens bloom with springtime color and seasonal events.
By Carolyn Thornton

Throughout the South, the first blush of violets, daffodils, dogwood and redbud trees signal the start of spring. Purple and white wisteria cascades from tree tops. Yellow Carolina jasmine creeps along fences. This kaleidoscopic growth draws nature lovers outdoors and into gardens planned decades ago.

Mirror Lake

Above: Mirror Lake at Bellingrath Gardens and Home is rimmed by azaleas ablaze in spring color. Bellingrath Gardens and Home photo

Below: Savannah’s Forsyth Park is popular with walkers. Carolyn Thornton photo


Sidewalks and Squares

In Savannah, Ga., azaleas rim the city’s signature squares, sidewalks and live-oak-lined streets. Standing like hooped antebellum gowns that belles have just stepped out of, these floral debutantes wear white and every hue of red.

Gen. James E. Oglethorpe founded the Colonial city in 1733 on a grid plan with residences surrounding squares. Each square was designed to serve as a meeting place, market, common grazing area and military drill yard. Preservation efforts have helped maintain 22 of Savannah’s squares, plus Forsyth Park named for a Georgia governor. Today, it attracts joggers and hosts outdoor concerts, soccer and tennis tournaments. During the St. Patrick’s Day celebration–the second largest in the U.S.–water in the fountain is dyed green.

To appreciate Savannah in bloom only takes a casual stroll, horse-drawn buggy ride or trolley tour of the 2.5-square-mile historical district. The 76th annual tour of homes and gardens, which includes lectures and lunches, is scheduled for March 24–27.

Tree huggers will be enthralled by the 250 live-oaks lining the drive of Wormsloe Historic Site on Skidaway Road outside of Savannah. A video in the site’s museum relates the story of Noble Jones, one of Georgia’s first residents. Nature trails lead to the tabby ruins of Jones’ home and to a marsh overlook. Tabby was a Colonial coastal building material made of lime, sand, water and crushed shells. Events vary seasonally from furniture making to demonstrations of loading and firing a musket.

House and gardens

What began as a fishing camp on Alabama’s Fowl River has become a major attraction for the Mobile area. Walter D. Bellingrath compared his garden to a beautiful woman who has a different gown for every week of the year. The first time he and his wife, Bessie, opened Bellingrath Gardens to the public in 1932, the police were called to untangle the traffic jam it created.

Winter camellias sometimes linger into early March when the azaleas first bloom, but the best color happens later in that month. A few mature azalea bushes can stand about 10 feet tall. Benches and chairs throughout the 65 acres invite visitors to watch butterflies and birds. Listen to the trickle of water coming from Fountain Plaza and the rock garden’s waterfall. A formal rose garden, Bayou Boardwalk and Great Lawn–a beautiful expanse of bright green–also are here. Once the azaleas fade, this lady changes into other floral gowns to delight visitors year-round.

In addition to the gardens, the home, chapel and Bessie’s collection of Boehm Porcelain also are open to guests.

Spring events include the Festival of Flowers on March 24–27. Billed as the largest outdoor flower show in the Southeast, the festival takes place at Providence Hospital Campus, 6801 Airport Blvd. in Mobile. Bellingrath Garden designers create a garden for the event. Festival of Flowers and Bellingrath Gardens and Home are a perfect match to see spring in all its glory.

City gardens, country lanes

Gardens frame the streets above the Mississippi River bluffs at Natchez, Miss. Spring is synonymous with the Pilgrimage (March 12–April 16) when as many as 30 private antebellum mansions and their gardens are open to the public.

In 1932, a hard rain on the eve of a state garden show inspired Katherine Grafton Miller of Hope Farm to begin what has become the oldest house tour in the Southeast. She convinced nine of her friends to wear their grandmothers’ wedding dresses and open their homes so that the garden visitors wouldn’t be disappointed.

Monmouth, a AAA Four Diamond inn, has many spectacular gardens, making it a favorite wedding site. The 1818 home was the residence of Gen. John A. Quitman. Magnolias, rose gardens, tulip beds, daffodils and azaleas fill Monmouth’s opulent gardens. Stanton Hall (1851–57), the city’s largest home, has equally majestic camellias and azaleas. Carriage drivers often stop at the front gate so that passengers can peer up at the towering mansion.

Return to Natchez for the Symphony of Gardens Tour on May 6 and 7 to admire more of the outstanding homes here. In fact, a glimpse down any street in Natchez during spring reveals splashes of colorful blooms surrounding the city’s white-columned mansions.

An overlooked garden gem in Mississippi’s delta is Wister Gardens on state Highway 7 just north of Belzoni. Live-oaks and magnolia trees tower over the entrance drive. Frances Chiles Henry and Wister Henry developed this 14-acre garden from pastureland in 1937. For his efforts, he received the highest award presented by the Men’s Garden Club of America–a statue of Johnny Appleseed–that’s located in a rose-filled alcove.

The Henrys’ former home is not open to the public. However, it forms the centerpiece of the garden with pathways meandering left, right and beyond. Knockout roses, azaleas, wisteria and flowering fruit trees greet spring visitors. Later, crape myrtles, water lilies and hundreds of varieties of day lilies command attention. Henry left his property in a permanent trust, enabling free daily access for visitors.

Native American heritage

The Osage Indians of northwest Arkansas first established a trading post at Blue Spring. They considered this deep blue lagoon a sacred healing place. Fittingly, Blue Spring Heritage Center, five miles west of Eureka Springs, features Native American gardens.

The Medicine Wheel Garden has native plants and herbs traditionally planted in a circle, symbolizing a life cycle and unending lessons of wisdom. Native Americans often planted beans, corn and squash together. In The Three Sisters Garden, dual corn stalks support the climbing beans, and squash plants help retain soil moisture. These Three Sisters were a reminder of the need for one another, as well as protection given to Native Americans by spirits.

Woodland Gardens offer trails among native plants and trees and create a connection to nature. Remnants of a water mill and settlement recall the days when pioneers traded with what they called the “Strongboat Indians” to float goods down the White River to New Orleans.

Archeological digs by the University of Arkansas at the bluff shelter have revealed prehistoric animal bones and shellfish dating to 8000 B.C. Fire pits, arrow points and Woodland Plains pottery date from 1700 A.D.

Millions of gallons of fresh spring water refresh the trout-filled lagoon daily, which makes this a popular site for brides. Blue Spring Heritage Center has exhibits, crafts, programs and a Trading Post shop. The center is open March 15 to Nov. 13.

A garden with rooms

When landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman created a garden for Edith and Edgar Stern in New Orleans, the couple realized the house had few windows to overlook the garden. In a feat that proved their love for the new garden, the Sterns had the house moved down the street using cypress logs and mules. Longue Vue House and Gardens on Bamboo Road in New Orleans was completed in 1942.

The home with its Flower Arranging Room, floral carpets and wallpaper designs can be toured, along with the gardens. Even visitors on rainy days are rewarded with garden views from multiple windows and doors.

Outside, each garden room has a different personality. In the Wild Garden, a path winds through Louisiana wildflowers and native trees. A water tunnel adds a whimsical element to the boxwood hedges of the Spanish Court. Only plants with yellow blooms or variegated foliage pop up outside the guest cottage, and the Discovery Garden gives visitors hands-on gardening lessons.

This spring, discover Southern charm and beauty in the region’s gardens.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

Mar/Apr 2011 Issue


For more information, contact:
• Savannah CVB, (877) SAVANNAH (877-728-2662),;
• Bellingrath Gardens, (800) 247-8420,;
• Natchez CVB, (800) 647-6724,;
• Wister Gardens, (662) 247-3025,;
• Blue Spring Heritage Center, (479) 253-9244,;
• Longue Vue House and Gardens, (504) 488-5488,

To visit the splendid Southern gardens, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. View a list of offices to serve you .

Order free information about Arkansas and Louisiana through the Reader Service Card, found online at

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