67 acres nestle right up to Bradley Creek like old friends with centuries of shared memories. Each are beautiful and unique and yet support one another with ecological harmony. Butterflies flutter, birds rejoice, flowers bloom, spiders web, swans glide, and century-old majestic oaks branch out, holding up the sky with gnarled arms. My feet softly making their way along the garden path seem almost like an intrusion.
Airlie Gardens grace Wilmington, North Carolina just beyond the gates that separate this tranquil oasis from the thriving suburban city in New Hanover County. Just like nature, the gardens are never the same experience twice. With rotating exhibits, seasonal flora and fauna which include over 100,000 azaleas, and cultural events ranging from outdoor concerts to sculptures, you can easily visit the garden several times a year and discover something brand new.
The property was originally part of a land grant from none other than King George II to the Ogden brothers. It was known for a while as Seaside Park and purchased by a woman, Sarah Greene Jones, for $1250.
Airlie is a testament to how one small act of Nature and human hands can evolve into something majestic and wonderful.
Think about it. One day around the year 1545 an acorn falls on the ground and takes root. Almost with a sense of pre-ordained determination it survives, first years and then centuries. A multitude of seasons, animals, children, man, fires, and hurricanes cannot stop its evolution into the famous 468-year-old Airlie Oak we enjoy today. In its shade, lovers have shared a first kiss, couples have exchanged vows, and families enjoyed picnics.
And, one spring morning Miss Sadie, aka Sarah Wharton Greene Jones, dug her fingers into the warm Carolina earth and planted the first of many flowers that still bloom with seemingly pre-ordained determination over a century after Sarah’s first spark of inspiration to build upon Nature’s perfection.
This piece of land we enjoy today was built up during America’s Gilded Age and played host to high society and politicians. It came to be known as a “happy, beautiful, magical place” by many prominent families whose names you recognize on buildings, streets, neighborhoods and cities of New Hanover.
It changed hands a few times before reaching the Corbett family. When the gardens started to decline, rather than convert the land to a residential neighborhood, the New Hanover County Commissioners acquired the property in 1999 so the likes of you and I can enjoy the place where the rich and famous of past generations escaped the “many ails” of city life.
Today, it’s still a respite from city life and the rush for consumption and consumerism. Students of all ages come here to learn about and appreciate our tidal creek, forest, and freshwater-lake ecosystems. The butterfly house stands as a place to admire graceful colors of nature floating from flower to flower. And, when children stand still long enough they may be rewarded with the wonder of a butterfly landing on their hand, shoulder, and head just long enough for them to stop, vacillate between delight and fear, and giggle playfully before flitting along after their newfound insect friend.
Airlie Garden can be enjoyed year-round with a self-guided walking tour along well-defined paths. When visitors come during the annual Azalea Festival they enjoy all gardens in full bloom although there is plenty to see all year long. As the beloved Minnie Evans said, “There are 2,000 shades of green in God’s palette…” and it seems all of them can be found in Airlie Gardens.
The Educator in the Garden Program and Bird Hikes are offered throughout each month for those seeking a more in-depth educational experience. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a guide to show you the treasures hiding in plain sight, surprises tucked around the next corner and within the nooks and crannies of this ever-changing wonderland.
From May to September you can unroll a blanket, open your picnic basket, and enjoy one of the many concerts offered during the Summer Concert Series. Classic Rock, Reggae, Beach Music, and Soul rise from the open lawn where acoustics are provided by the trees and sweet southern breezes coming in from the water.
For a moment, you can close your eyes and imagine yourself in the Gilded Age…or, simply enjoy the present age and the people you share your time with.
When You Go to Airlie Gardens, Wilmington, NC:
300 Airlie Road
Wilmington, NC 28403
Open year-round, check website for daily hours and current events
Current entry price as of this writing:
New Hanover Residents-$5
Children 4-12 years old-$3
Children under 4-Free
For Garden Rules and Photography information: