August 24, 2012
Author: Quill Teal-Sullivan
Photographer: Wonsoon Park
The final stop on our North American Experience was Airlie Gardens, a lovely display garden nestled amongst fresh water ponds and ancient live oaks at the edge of Wilmington, North Carolina. Airlie has a long history of public visitation, having first opened its doors to public tours over 100 years ago as the private estate of the Pembroke Jones family. In 1999, Airlie officially became a public garden when the owners partnered with the Coastal Land Trust and sold the 67-acre garden to New Hanover County.
Our host for the day was former Longwood employee Jim McDaniel, who serves as the Director of Parks, Gardens, and Senior Resources for New Hanover County. When Jim was hired ten years ago, Airlie was on the brink of collapse after a brutal period of financial hardship under prior leadership. Over cups of strong Wilmington coffee, we listened to Jim recount the trials and triumphs of fighting for Airlie’s survival, and the victory of bringing the garden to full financial sustainability.
Jim and his dedicated staff have integrated contemporary new gardens, facilities, and programs into a garden that drips with Southern history and magic. One new addition to the garden is the Minnie Evan’s Bottle Chapel, dedicated to the popular African American folk artist who served as Airlie’s gatekeeper when it was a private estate. The Bottle Chapel is constructed of concrete and salvaged glass bottles, evoking the colors of sea glass and the spirit of a stained-glass window. A shrine composed of Aunt Jemima syrup bottles inside the Chapel is a tribute to Minnie’s devotion to the church, and a mark of the artist’s clever use of the materials.
Yet another new addition to the garden is a large butterfly house that was constructed using a prefabricated metal gazebo-like structure, enhanced according to USDA butterfly house standards, including mesh siding and roofing just right for domestic butterflies. The entire project from start to finish (including plantings), cost $200K, a figure that Jim estimated as being far less than many comparable butterfly houses on the market.
But the crown jewel of the Airlie Gardens is far from new. The Airlie Oak, a 468-year-old live oak (Quercus virginiana) took our breath away. Its branches twist and turn towards the sky, festooned with Spanish moss as though hundreds of bearded old elves are swinging up-side-down from every limb. The Airlie Oak is North Carolina’s State Champion, making its neighboring oaks that are from 200 to 300 years of age, look juvenile. This ancient oak is insured for $1 million.
Our tour ended with a visit to the entry gate, surrounded by plantings designed by Longwood Graduate alumnus Rodney Eason. Then off we went to a fish-fried dinner along the sandy beaches of Cape Fear. And alas, this brings our North American Experience to an end. We have visited a diverse mix of gardens, each unique in its mission and approach serving its audience, collections, and greater community. Goodbye North Carolina, and thank you for your hospitality.