Escapes: There's More Than Azaleas in Wilmington, N.C.

Airlie Gardens and its more than 100,000 azaleas are part of the annual Azalea Garden Tour, which runs Friday through Sunday in Wilmington, N.C.
Airlie Gardens and its more than 100,000 azaleas are part of the annual Azalea Garden Tour, which runs Friday through Sunday in Wilmington, N.C. (By Bill Russ -- North Carolina Division Of Tourism)
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By Hilary Krieger
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"You're just going to miss the azalea festival, you know."

Oh, did I know. The well-intentioned woman standing behind the tourist information desk was only the last in a long line of people ruefully informing me that I had arrived in Wilmington, N.C., three weeks before the be-all, end-all of floral extravaganzas, when young belles in pastel antebellum gowns escort thousands of visitors on historic home and garden tours showing off the fuchsia, coral and amethyst blossoms. Downtown, the Azalea Queen presides over a parade, shoppers at the sprawling street fair can buy garden sculptures to the accompaniment of the Monkey Junction Band, and locals dance the night away at an honest-to-goodness shag contest.

So yes, I knew. But when I had awakened in Washington that morning to see snow -- snow! -- floating past my window, just days after the weather had toyed with me by hitting 70, I'd decided I couldn't wait any longer for flowers. I needed spring then and there.

Six hours later and 20 degrees warmer, I was in Wilmington being reminded about my poor timing. I was also realizing that this town of 100,000 on the Cape Fear coast takes this azalea business seriously: On the way in I spotted an Azalea Realty and even an Azalea Baptist Church. Absent the big event, I decided to do the next best thing by checking out the centerpiece of the April festival, Airlie Gardens, for signs of spring.

The Gardens' 67 acres, once part of a sprawling estate granted by King George II in 1735, seems a fitting place for celebrating in decadent floral fashion. Erstwhile owners J. Pembroke and Sarah Jones (Wilmington lore credits them with the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses") used the lavish grounds to host fabulous parties for the rich and glamorous. A Roman-style statue holds court in the Spring Garden, and a 150-foot rose trellis leads to a peaceful lagoon inhabited by swans. The gardens contain more than 100,000 azaleas, and while not a single one of them had bloomed by the time of my visit, the more-than-400-year-old live oak circled by tulips and pansies provided some compensation.

Greenfield Lake, another lagoony body of water across town, toes more closely the fine line between tranquil and eerie that cuts through a region strewn with Spanish moss and, for that matter, labeled Cape Fear. The five-mile trail looping around cypress trees semi-submerged in murky water, and dotted with daffodils and tulips, is a pleasant spot for jogging, biking and canoeing.

Lovely, but I still felt I hadn't taken full advantage of the favorable latitude, especially not from a historical perspective. From Old Wilmington, whose rambling houses retain the air of the pre-Civil War South and are copiously adorned with historic preservation plaques, I traveled half an hour to Orton Plantation. Though the azaleas were still hibernating there, too, luscious camellias covered the meandering paths with their petals, as if an overzealous flower girl had gone astray during the last wedding at the estate's charming chapel.

This small white church is the only structure the public can enter, as the imposing residence is still inhabited. But the stately home, which dates to 1735, is well worth observing from the outside, particularly given its setting overlooking the marshes of what was once an expansive rice plantation.

So maybe I hadn't seen any azaleas, but a 35-minute ferry ride across the Cape Fear River promised a rendezvous with another indigenous plant that I was assured would be greeting me with open arms, or at least jaws.

The Venus' flytrap might not have its own festival, but it does have its own musical. And, while you would never know it from two hours of watching a singing dentist and a ravenous felt plant in "Little Shop of Horrors," the flytrap is native only to the 70 miles surrounding Wilmington. So say the helpful rangers whose company is crucial -- and reassuring -- when trying to locate the creepy insectivores dwelling in Carolina Beach State Park. The flytrap, for all its Broadway pretensions, stays low to the ground and can be hard to spot.

In fact, though the flytrap leads the field in name recognition, it's not the only or even the most impressive of the region's carnivorous plants. According to the rangers, the inadequate nutrients in the area's sandy soil forced several plants to evolve ways to supplement their diets with bugs. The pitcher plant's long pitcher-shaped neck has been known to catch frogs and birds, and the more diminutive butterwort uses greasy (some say buttery) leaves to attract gnats and other small insects.

They might not be the kind of plant life you seek out while clutching a parasol in lace gloves, but walking though the boggy Carolina woods in search of the rare flora that leave beetle exoskeletons and lizard bones in their wake was more than enough to tide me over until next year's azalea festival.

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