There’s always something blooming in America’s South.
The climate in the southern United States is so temperate that the Southern states are home to some world-class gardens. From gardens that focus on regional trees and plants to others designed to resemble famous gardens in Europe and some that offer a taste of local cuisine, culture and history, here are five gardens your groups will want to see on your next tour through the region.
Houmas House and Gardens
Located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Houmas House and Gardens gives visitors a chance to see what life was like on a sugarcane plantation in the 1800s. The 18,000-square-foot mansion, which was built in 1828, was bought by a New Orleans businessman 20 years ago. He wanted a summer home at the time. But once he started restoring the property, he knew he had to share it with the community.
The home and ornamental gardens on property were not well maintained after 1940, and owner Kevin Kelly has spent the past two decades restoring both to their original glory. Now the gardens are considered some of the best in Louisiana, featuring ponds, fountains and statuary.
There are historic gardens, new gardens, cactus and oriental gardens and traditional plantation gardens with azaleas and crepe myrtle trees spread over 38 acres. It took about four years to redo the historic gardens, and after that, Kelly kept adding on. He bought 34 acres next door and has plans to build the Gardens of Giverny in an homage to Monet and his famous paintings of water lilies. The area will have lily ponds and weeping willows.
Groups can take guided tours of the house and grounds. There are three greenhouses to bring the tropical plants indoors when the weather turns sour, as well as three restaurants. Group travelers can organize lunches there as part of their tour and even stay at the 21-room inn on property.
Charleston, South Carolina
An 18th century rice plantation and National Historic Landmark, Middleton Place in Charleston, South Carolina, has America’s oldest landscaped gardens. Its sculpted terraces, parterres and reflection pools are laid out according to the principles of Andre Le Notre, a French botanist who was responsible for the gardens at Versailles.
Middleton Place’s signature gardens come from French botanist Andre Michaux, who planted the first camellias there in 1786. The camellias begin to bloom in February, when not much else is in season. Groups can take tours of the gardens with guides trained to bring them to the main sections in the garden’s history, including the Middleton Tomb, where Arthur Middleton is buried. Middleton was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
“I think what is so unique about some of our interpretation is we strive to tell the whole story and the whole narrative,” said Brandon Stone, engagement manager for Middleton Place Foundation. “We combed through our archives and records to find the names of the Africans who were the first gardeners, caretakers of that land.”
The organization offers tours of the only part of the original home that survived a fire in 1865. Middleton Place emphasizes how the plantation would have worked. The stable yards exhibit is about the craftsmanship that was displayed on plantations, including blacksmith and cooper shops, both jobs that would have been done by enslaved people. Groups can also enjoy a meal at the restaurant on property, which offers a taste of low country cuisine and the history behind it.
The Elizabethan Gardens
Manteo, North Carolina
The Elizabethan Gardens opened on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island in August 1960, but had been in the works since 1950, when a group of ladies visiting Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and “The Lost Colony” outdoor drama came up with the idea to build a two-acre garden on a 10-acre tract adjoining the park. They thought that such a cultural attraction would enhance the value of the area as a permanent memorial to Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colonists.
The Garden Club of North Carolina loved the idea and voted to build the garden. At first, plans were modest, but after receiving a gift of valuable garden statuary, including an ancient Italian fountain and pool with balustrade, a carved Porphyry marble wellhead, sundial, birdbaths, stone steps and benches, the plans for the garden changed. Now when visitors enter the gardens through the Gate House, they see a beautiful Carrara marble fountain and smell the many herbs that would have been grown in a Shakespearean-era garden.
From the courtyard of the Gate House, guests can take three different paths through the gardens. The Sunken Garden consists of 32 identical parterres outlined in clipped dwarf yaupon, with the central focal point being the Italian fountain and pool with carved balustrade. An authentic 16th century gazebo was constructed overlooking Roanoke and Currituck Sounds. Guides can tailor tours based on what groups are interested in learning about, whether it be the plants or the many statues and fountains scattered throughout.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Coral Gables, Florida
Opened in 1938, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden sits on 83 acres in Coral Gables, Florida. The garden has more than 6,000 rare and exotic plants, from palms and flowers to shrubs, vines and fruit trees. The Water Gardens at Fairchild features 11 lakes and seven pools, including a sunken garden and waterfall, as well as the Tropical Plant Conservatory and Rare Plant House Pools.
The Wings of the Tropics exhibit is where visitors can spy hundreds of exotic butterflies fluttering among a stunning display of tropical plants year-round. Visitors also get to watch butterflies emerge from chrysalises at the Vollmer Metamorphosis Lab. After leaving the butterfly exhibit, visitors can wander through the Tropical Plant Conservatory and Rare Plant House and the Whitman Tropical Fruit Pavilion. The Tropical Flowering Tree Arboretum is a 12-acre display of 740 species of tropical flowering trees, shrubs and vines.
There are several group tour options at the gardens, including a tram tour, which is narrated by an expert guide and gives a nice introduction to the garden’s history, after which groups can explore on their own. Guided walks are led by trained volunteers who guide visitors along the way to many different plants, flowers, birds, butterflies and other wildlife. The content varies depending on the departure location and interest of the visitors. Groups can book a lunch in advance at the Glasshouse Café by Le Basque.
Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens
Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, Virginia, features more than 50 acres of themed gardens, including a conservatory, rose garden and an Asian Valley. The gardens are designed in a way that encourages exploration, with winding pathways with scenic surprises at every turn.
Some gardens have long expanses or vistas or more parklike settings. Other areas are more intimate. The Asian Valley features rocks and boulders incorporated into the design. Waterfalls cascade over the rocks, feeding numerous plants that are native to Asia.
The gardens were founded in 1984, but the property has a unique history. In 1895 the original structure on the property was a bicycle club called Lakeside Wheel Club. It was founded by a philanthropist and businessman named Lewis Ginter. After he passed away, his niece used the property as a children’s hospital and later as a residence. In her will, she left an endowment to create a botanical garden named after her uncle.
Groups can book guided tours of the gardens or take self-guided tours. One option, From Bicycle Club to Botanical Garden, takes visitors through the history of the property. The Central Garden Walk is very accessible and includes a beautiful display garden with thousands of tulips in the spring and wonderful fountains. The conservatory is close by. The Garden Highlights Tour brings groups to the parts of the gardens that are currently in bloom.