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Nature’s beauty

The gardens at the Biltmore Estate (main and top inset photos) in Asheville, N.C., span more than 80 acres and continue to be maintained based on specifications from the 1890s, when the mansion was built. A fountain at Brookgreen Gardens (inset, center) in Murrell’s Inlet, S.C., is one of more than 1,200 sculptures to be seen there, and a path beneath 250-year-old live oaks (inset, bottom) is just one of the horticultural delights to be found there.

By Nicholas Langhorne

Botanical gardens are plentiful in the region and full of blooming delight and wonder

Long before the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the cultivation of flowers and other ornamental plants was a pastime that captured the imagination and satisfied the artistic impulses of people around the world, especially in the Mediterranean area and the eastern portion of Asia.

As it spread throughout much of the rest of the known world at the time, the Roman Empire introduced Europe and Africa to the arts, language and culture of Rome, including the Romans’ love of geometrically precise gardens with raised beds, topiary, statuary, fountains and walkways.

As the Europeans traveled to the New World, they brought their interest in formal gardening along with them. Eventually, as with most European traditions, American climates, resources and sensibilities morphed the old traditions, creating a contemporary style of gardening that infuses elements of garden types from all over the world and turns out to feel uniquely American.

With their relatively mild climates, Virginia and the Carolinas boast an enviable variety of public garden spaces, some of which are among the most extensive and important examples of their type on the East Coast.

One such place is the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

“Garden enthusiasts just fall in love when they come here,” said LeeAnn Donnelly, a spokeswoman for the sprawling historic home and gardens.

Some of the gardens can trace their history back centuries — and pique the interest not only of garden lovers, but of history lovers, as well.

“I think that people are looking for a place that they can kind of get away and reconnect with natural beauty,” observed Beth Monroe, public relations director for the Richmond, Va., Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

Following is some brief information about the Biltmore Estate, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and a few other distinctive public gardens in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Brookgreen Gardens

Located in Murrells Inlet, S.C., just south of Myrtle Beach, Brookgreen Gardens encompasses the area of four former plantations on a mix of forested swamps, salt marsh, sandy ridges and fresh tidal swamps. The 9,200-acre property is a national historic landmark and hosts both an accredited museum and zoo.

“While it is definitely a beautiful garden, it would also appeal to art lovers, people who are interested in history as well as animal lovers,” said Helen Benso, a spokeswoman for Brookgreen Gardens.

Brookgreen Gardens is the first public sculpture garden in America. Its sculpture collection includes more than 1,200 works by 350 sculptors.

Brookgreen Gardens is open daily from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. and closed on Christmas Day.

For more information call 800-849-1931 or 843-235-6000.

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Va., is home to more than 50 acres of gardens, including more than a dozen themed gardens.

Monroe said Lewis Ginter has “a fantastic children’s garden,” and it’s not uncommon to see grandparents bringing their grandchildren for visits.

“Sometimes we see three generations,” Monroe said. “I think that we really want to be a place that everyone can come to and feel comfortable and sometimes that’s challenging. I think that Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden does that.”

The garden is open year-round, with the exception of New Years Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas and Christmas Eve.

For more information call 804-262-9887.

Elizabethan Gardens

While the Outer Banks of North Carolina may be best known for its beaches, it is also home to the Manteo’s Elizabethan Gardens — appealing to both garden and history enthusiasts.

“Our gardens are located on the north end of Roanoke Island, the site where the famous ‘Lost Colony’ landed and settled before their mysterious disappearance,” Gardens Manager Jeff Lewis says.

The Sunken Garden at Manteo’s Elizabethan Gardens in North Carolina features an antique Italian fountain as its focal point. The town of Manteo and the Elizabethan Gardens are located on Roanoke Island, where British colonists first landed in the New World.

Also harkening back to its historic location, the gardens host a more than 100-year-old carved marble statue of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World.

Elizabethan Gardens also offers “great wedding sites” and plant sales, including many hard-to-find items, Lewis said.

Elizabethan Gardens is open seven days a week, except New Years Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

For more information call 252-473-3234.

Biltmore Estate

The sprawling Biltmore Estate in Ashland, N.C., hosts more than 80 acres of formal gardens, Donnelly said.

“There’s always something to see in the gardens anytime you come to Biltmore,” she said.

The property was developed in the late 1800s as a home for the wealthy George Vanderbilt.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York’s Central Park, designed the grounds of the property. Donnelly said special attention is paid to ensure the property retains its original character.

“Everything that the horticulture team does is based on specifications made by Mr. Olmsted in the 1890s,” she said.

Donnelly suggests that visitors set aside more than a day to explore the estate. In addition to the gardens, the Biltmore house is a 250-room French chateau and a winery.

“Anyone who is interested in gardens, of course, is going to enjoy themselves at Biltmore, but if you’re interested in the history of the land and the time period in which Biltmore was created, then that’s icing on the cake,” she said.

Biltmore is open 365 days a year. For more information and admission rates call 800-411-3812 or 828-225-1600.

Norfolk Botanical Garden

The Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Va., traces its origin to the late 1930s. A grant from the Works Progress Administration — created to put Americans to work during the Great Depression — facilitated the beginning of the project.

Today, the botanical garden’s 155 acres are filled with thousands of plants and more than 30 themed gardens. Tours of the garden are available by foot, boat or tram.

The WOW Children’s Garden is a three-acre garden dedicated to families and children. There is also a horticultural library on site. While only members can check out books, everyone is welcome to use the library for reference.

The botanical garden is open year-round except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

For more information call 757-441-5830.

North Carolina Botanical Garden

Located adjacent to the main campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the North Carolina Botanical Garden has been a leader in native plant conservation and education in the southeast for more than 30 years.

“The North Carolina Botanical Garden is known for its diverse display of colorful wildflowers and for its conservation education programs,” said Garden Director Peter White.

The botanical garden is a protector of more than 30 endangered plant species and hosts a collection of carnivorous plants.

“The garden consists of five acres of display gardens but almost 1,000 acres of natural woodlands with nature trails.”

The botanical garden is open to the public seven days a week, except for major holidays. There is no admission charge. For more information call 919-962-0522.

Shirley Plantation

Founded in 1613, Shirley Plantation was the first plantation in Virginia. Not only is it a historic landmark, but the plantation also hosts gardens with a number of different types of plants, including an impressive collection of English boxwoods.

“The English boxwoods have been in place since the 18th century,” said Julian Charity of Shirley Plantation. “They are the originals. They’ve been here for over 300 years.”

The plantation’s English boxwoods are especially impressive, Charity said, because the plants don’t normally fare well in Virginia’s climate.

“For us to have as many English boxwoods as we do … it’s just unique in itself,” he said.

Charity said the plantation also has an herbal garden “with everything from rosemary to mint.”

Shirley Plantation is open daily, except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For more information, call 1-800-232-1613 or 804-829-5121.