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North Carolina History on Vacation

The Garden Tours of North Carolina are a Feast for the Senses


Biltmore House in Asheville, N Carolina

Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina

Image courtesy of Biltmore Estate
By Susan Breslow Sardone

Talk about going back to your roots: In North Carolina, garden touring has emerged as one of today's most popular activities. And heritage gardens, where traditional flowers, plants, and arrangements are cultivated over time, are more than sanctuaries for travelers to unwind. They reconnect people to the past through their distinctive sights, sounds, and smells. North Carolina is redolent with such special places, and these are among its most extraordinary gardens and horticultural displays:

  • At the courtly Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, North Carolina, breezes perfumed by aromatic herbs and camellias transport visitors back to the time of the first settlers.
  • A serene North Carolina garden that evokes memories of the antebellum South, Orton Plantation Gardens is set on the banks of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington.
  • Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens in New Bern, North Carolina features a variety of environments, from formal knot gardens and pragmatic kitchen gardens to wilderness gardens. Step back to 1768, the time of the royal governors, and tour the restored North Carolina governor's residence and first permanent capital of the colony.
  • In North Carolina's Heartland, gardens have a more primeval character: Sarah P. Duke Gardens, on the campus of Duke University, displays more than 900 native plant species.
  • Indigenous plants also flourish at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill.
  • Further west, Old Salem, North Carolina maintains replicas of gardens planted by Moravian settlers in the 1760s. Beyond the garden walls are native trees and cultivars of old fruit trees, and fences are adorned with centuries-old vines.

Biltmore Estate: Where the Grass is Greener

The country's largest private residence, Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina vividly recalls the Gilded Age. Containing 90 rooms, replete with opulent furnishings, the mansion also presents a detailed portrait of 19th-century society as lived by the enormously wealthy Vanderbilts.

The Biltmore Estate grounds, where visitors are free to wander, are equally resplendent. Nearly a hundred years ago Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture in America, arrived here to design what he termed a "natural landscape" across thousands of acres. Thanks to his efforts, every spring an array of spectacular blooms and their fragrances reward guests.

Towering palms in the Winter Garden, rare tropical species in the recently reopened Conservatory, colorful tulips in the English Walled Garden, and the 16th-century Italian Garden with three its reflecting pools were all part of his grand design. The best time for viewing is during Biltmore Estate's Festival of Flowers, held in springtime.

Asheville, North Carolina is also home to the North Carolina Arboretum, located within Bent Creek Experimental Forest and surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest. The Arboretum's 426 acres contain a Stream Garden, Quilt Garden, Outdoor Events Garden, and Heritage Garden, all of which celebrate the Southern Appalachian landscape.

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