The Deep South is often associated with magnificent antebellum homes, distinctive cuisine and of course, classic Southern hospitality and effortless grace. But another major reason why the Southern states are such an alluring destination is its vast collection of gardens with brightly colorful plant species often seen only in this part of the country. Possibly the most famous and most photographed example in the South is on the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. But there are many, many other extraordinary places that don’t attract nearly as much attention, yet deserve an equal measure of nationwide, if not worldwide fame. Here are just five unique gardens of the South.
Bellingrath Gardens & Home
12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road
Theodore, AL 36582
Located in Mobile County about 30 miles from the City of Mobile, Bellingrath Gardens and Home was the extraordinary public garden and historical home of successful entrepreneur Walter Bellingrath and his wife Bessie. As one of the earliest franchise owners to sell Coca Cola in the Southeast, Walter Bellingrath attained enough wealth to develop a 10,500 square foot home on his 900-acre property that overlooks the scenic Fowl River and completed in 1936. However, the gardens existed a few years before as part of the Belle Camp fishing camp, a peaceful sanctuary for Bellingrath to enjoy in an effort to get away from his former residence in Mobile and his busy schedule. As the property began to grow, it became widely known for having the largest rose garden in the South and eventually opened to the public to much acclaim in 1932, reportedly drawing more than 4,000 visitors and creating a traffic jam to the estate. Today the stately home and gardens occupies 65 acres and operates as a fascinating museum, filled with extravagantly furnished rooms, rare antiques, well maintained exhibits and sweeping views of the river. While the season for the famous Cascading Mum Display has already passed, Bellingrath Gardens will continue to host several other events throughout the year, such as August Admissions Discount, Yoga in the Gardens and Paint Party. During the holidays, Bellingrath hosts its annual Magic Christmas in Lights, showcasing one of the best public light displays in America. The best choices for lodging will be found in historic Mobile, with the two best and tallest hotels, the Mobile Riverview Plaza and the famed Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel and Spa completely dominating the city’s skyline.
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Garvan Woodland Gardens
550 Arkridge Road
Hot Springs National Park, AK 71913
Known as the “crown jewel of botanical gardens” in Arkansas, Garvan Woodland Gardens is the official botanic garden of the University of Arkansas. Located within the spectacular Ouachita Mountains of Southwestern Arkansas and a few miles from the historic city of Hot Springs, this impressive 210-acre botanical garden was bequeathed by longtime resident and businesswoman Verna Cook Garvan after her death in 1939 and is just one of only eight public woodland gardens in the country, as well as the only one of its kind that’s located on a body of water, specifically the manmade Lake Hamilton. Recently ranked among the top five gardens in the U.S. and certainly one of the best in the Deep South, Garvan is renowned for its Asian garden, ranked among the best on the North American continent, but is also distinguished by several other specialty gardens, in addition to a 45-acre nature preserve, a scenic promenade, several picturesque walking trails with waterfalls and footbridges, and a breathtaking chapel that’s very popular for weddings. Garvan Woodland Gardens also has new kid-friendly treehouse to complement its other family-friendly attractions which includes a model train area and a children’s adventure garden. Consistently rated as one of the leading attractions in the Hot Springs area and the entire South, Garvan Woodland Gardens is open daily except on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Suggested lodging include the historic Arlington Resort and Spa, the Hotel Hot Springs and the luxurious Lookout Point Lakeside Inn, named one of this year’s most romantic hotels in America.
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Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
3550 Ashley River Road
Charleston, SC 29414
Unquestionably one of the most beautiful places on Earth, Magnolia Plantation is home to America’s oldest garden, founded by Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann in 1680. Elegantly spread across more than 450 acres, the property has been owned by the same Drayton family for 15 generations and is a must-see attraction for nature lovers in the Charleston area, despite the fact that it’s located more than 12 miles away from the center of one of the finest cities in America. Open year round including on major holidays, Magnolia Plantation is also known for having America’s last large-scale Romantic-style garden, formerly popularized in Europe during the 18th century. Today, Magnolia Plantation offers visitors a number tours, attractions like a nature train and the plantation home, as well as some wedding venues that are unmatched by any other in the country for its beauty and enchantment. The most affordable of the tours is a walking tour of the breathtaking property, which features a vast presentation of radiantly colored plant species like its world-famous azaleas and camellias, as well as notable sites like the Reconstruction-era manor house and the captivating Long White Bridge, whose stunning image and magical surroundings are reflected upon Cypress Lake. Visitors who have more time should also consider taking one of the informative tours, such as the From Slavery to Freedom Tour, which presents a number of well-preserved cabins that were previously occupied by antebellum slaves, and both enslaved and free 20th century African Americans. While Magnolia Plantation and Gardens gets the most attention for natural beauty in Charleston, visitors may also want to visit Drayton Hall, the gorgeous 18th century plantation home of the Drayton family and Middleton Place, the Historic Landmark that’s home to one of America’s oldest landscaped gardens. Charleston is never without lodging option, with recommendations like the Spectator, five-star luxury Wentworth Mansion and Wild Dunes Resort on the Isle of Palms.
Memphis Botanic Garden
750 Cherry Road
Memphis, TN 38117
In a city that calls itself the Birthplace of Rock n’ Roll, Memphis Botanic Garden has to compete with the city’s biggest and most famous attractions, like Sun Studio, Stax Museum, the National Civil Rights Museum and of course Elvis Presley’s Graceland. But this phenomenal attraction bordering Audubon Park and the University of Memphis is consistently mentioned as one of America’s best botanical gardens and recently certified as a Level 4 arboretum, the highest level of accreditation through industry-leading ArbNet. Celebrating its 66th anniversary this year, Memphis Botanic Garden encompasses nearly 100 acres and offers 28 specialty gardens, including a celebrated Japanese Garden that’s one of the most photographed attractions in the city. Several more notable spots should be explored during a visit, and includes the popular Azalea Trail with multiple blooms through October, the distinctive Blue Star Marker that honors the U.S. Armed Forces, the kid-friendly Big Back Yard and the Hosta Trail, featuring one of just two Hosta gardens in the South. Open daily except on certain holidays, the Botanic Garden is also a popular spot for weddings and hosts several events year round, including the Summer Concert Series. While in Memphis, vacationers may also wish to visit Dixon Gallery & Gardens, but the more obvious choice would be the city’s most unique – the Meditation Garden at Graceland, where Elvis Presley and members of his family are laid to rest. In addition to the namesake home, Graceland also has an RV park and campground, as well as the upscale new Guesthouse at Graceland, a AAA Four Diamond property which opened last year. Other suggested lodging include the new boutique Hotel Napoleon and the legendary Peabody Hotel, perhaps best known for its beloved March of the Ducks.
New Orleans Botanical Garden
1 Palm Drive
New Orleans, LA 70124
Not long after Hurricane Katrina destroyed nearly all the plant life in the New Orleans Botanical Garden in 2005, a “Master Plan 2018” was developed in an effort to restore public parks in time for last year’s 300th anniversary. After replanting the entire botanical garden, visitors are now enjoying the 12 revitalized acres of unique artwork and lush gardens featuring more than 2,000 plant species from all over the world, including colorful varieties like azaleas, summer poinsettias, crepe myrtles and lilies. Established in 1936 as the first classical garden in the glorious City of New Orleans, the Botanical Garden is located within the enormous, 1,300 City Park, one of the oldest public parks in the country and best known for providing a sanctuary to the world’s largest stand of mature live oak trees, along with an antique carousel and the historic New Orleans Museum of Art, oldest museum in the city and among the oldest in the South. Open daily the Botanical Garden hosts special events year long, including ongoing live music during the Thursdays at Twilight concert series, monthly summer plant sales, Fall Garden Festival and the kid-friendly Scarecrow Trail. New Orleans offers a wide range of hotels, with notable recommendations like the newly reopened luxury Jung Hotel and Residences, Dauphine Orleans, Hotel Le Marais and Hotel Monteleone, as well as fine dining options like Arnaud’s, Brennan’s Restaurant and Commander’s Palace.
About the Author:
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer who has covered national/international travel for CBS Local and all things San Francisco for CBS San Francisco. He is a Media Fellow of Stanford University and a member of the Freelance Council of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW).
He is a lifelong resident of Santa Cruz County, California.