Airlie Gardens is 67 acres of former North Carolina wilderness nestled up to Bradley Creek. Like old friends, they share more than a century of memories and change brought on by man and Mother Nature. Both have altered the landscape.
As they say, you never step into the same creek twice. The same could be said about the gardens because they too change with each season.
It is peaceful here and filled with activity beneath the serenity. 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 in Wilmington, North Carolina, is a tranquil oasis with rotating exhibits, cultural events like outdoor concerts and sculptures, and seasonal flora and fauna, including over 100,000 azaleas. You can easily visit the garden several times a year and discover something new each time.
The history books will give you the facts: The property was originally part of a land grant from King George II to the Ogden brothers. It was known as Seaside Park and was eventually purchased by Sarah Greene Jones for $1,250.
Airlie Gardens, however, is much more. It is a testament to how one small act of nature nurtured by human hands can evolve into timeless, majestic beauty.
For example, look at the 468-year-old Airlie Oak. 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 for years and then centuries. Many seasons, animals, children, men and women, fires, and hurricanes couldn’t stop its evolution into the famous oak we enjoy today. In its shade, lovers have shared their first kiss, couples have exchanged vows, and families enjoy picnics.
Then, consider the simple actions of Sarah Wharton Greene Jones. One spring morning in the 19th century, “Miss Sadie” dug her fingers into the warm Carolina earth. She planted the first of many flowers that still bloom today with seemingly pre-ordained determination. Over a century after Sarah’s first spark of inspiration, over 100,000 people from around the world enjoy her gardens every year.
Airlie Gardens was developed during America’s Gilded Age and played host to high society and politicians. It was known as a “happy, beautiful, magical place” by many prominent families whose names adorn buildings, streets, neighborhoods, and cities throughout New Hanover county.
When the gardens started to decline, the New Hanover County Commissioners acquired the property in 1999 to preserve it. So rather than another “cookie-cutter” neighborhood, we can enjoy the beautiful, magical place where gilded-age royalty went to escape the “many ails” of city life.
Today, it’s still a respite from city life. Students of all ages come here to learn about and appreciate tidal creek, forest, and freshwater-lake ecosystems. You can admire the elegant colors of nature floating from flower to flower in the butterfly house. When children stand still long enough, they may be rewarded with a butterfly landing on their hand, shoulder, or head. It’s fun to watch their emotions dance between delight and fear and then giggle playfully before flitting after their newfound insect friend.
Airlie Garden can be enjoyed year-round with a self-guided walking tour along well-defined paths. During the annual Azalea Festival, visitors experience the gardens in full bloom. However, 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 each month for those seeking a more in-depth educational experience. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a guide to show you treasures hiding in plain sight, surprises tucked around the next corner, and the mysteries living within the nooks and crannies of this ever-changing wonderland.
You can unroll a blanket, open your picnic basket, and enjoy music in the park during the Summer Concert Series from May to September. Classic Rock, Reggae, Beach Music, and Soul fill the air. The trees provide acoustics, and sweet breezes from the water offer a unique southern experience.
For a moment, you can close your eyes and imagine yourself as Gilded Age royalty strolling the grounds with not a care in the world…
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: