Inside the Camellia Belt: A Visit to Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, North Carolina

Sure, we can grow camellias in Southern California, but our camellias will never burst against a tangy orange bald cypress, and you won’t find them lingering beneath the edges of ancient live oaks draped with Spanish moss. Our daytime visit to Airlie Gardens in coastal Wilmington, North Carolina, preceded the evening crowds that visit the gardens for its acclaimed “Enchanted Airlie” holiday light display between Thanksgiving and Christmas every year.

We were there to observe camellia buds and blossoms lighting up these evergreen shrubs and small trees between their dark glossy leaves. Considering at one time there were over 5,000 camellia plants in these gardens, we came to the right place. We instantly fell in love with camellias as a genus and Airlie Gardens as a whole — especially for a garden on the brink of winter. We even brushed against blooming ‘Encore’ azaleas and then found ourselves convening between luscious ferns during our three-hour tour.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Camellia shrubs often naturally form a pyramidal shape.

Airlie Gardens Visit

A Camellia sasanqua blooms in late fall through early winter.

 

Wilmington, a coastal town in North Carolina (USDA Zone 8a), is in the middle of the Camellia Belt, which follows North America’s wet southeast hip along Zones 7-9 — where climates are closest to the plant’s native habitat in eastern Asia. Of 300+ species of camellias, the most common are Camellia sasanqua and Camellia japonica. The former bloom fall into winter, and the latter bloom winter into spring. The good news if you are not in the belt: There are thousands of hybrids, some of which are hardy all the way to Zone 6. Camellias need consistent watering, and should be planted in well-drained acidic soil to thrive. The best part about camellia care, in our opinion, is that they don’t like direct sunlight, so they’ll do well in areas of bright shade in your garden. Most camellias bloom late fall through early spring, to add color to your yard’s duller days.

Original property owners Sarah and Pembroke Jones started the collection of camellias and azaleas at the turn of the 20th century. Sarah Jones and a full staff of gardeners passionately continued to build and transform the gardens up until her death at age 84 in 1943. She threw lavish private garden parties, eventually offering public tours as early as 1931.

In 1948, the Corbett family purchased the land and continued to maintain the gardens, bringing in more camellias among other plants, hosted more garden parties, and offered more regular tours. In 1999, the family sold the 67-acre gardens to New Hanover County, which established Airlie Gardens as we know it today.

Airlie Gardens Visit

This live oak (Quercus virginiana), named ‘Airlie Oak,’ is estimated to have seeded from an acorn around 1545, making it over 470 years old. Today it is the centerpiece for many events, including summer concerts, in the gardens.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Camellia trees line the winding path along Bradley Creek.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Bradley Creek Pier.

Our camellia walk, highlighted in red, took about three hours.

We picnicked beneath air plants adjacent to Bradley Pier. You may remember our Instagram post.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) are air plants. They are epiphytic and harmless to the live oaks.

Airlie Gardens Visit

In addition to camellias, Airlie is famed for its collection of azaleas, numbering at one time over 300,000. ‘Encore’ azaleas were especially prominent this fall.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Since 1948, Airlie Gardens has hosted the ‘Queen’s Luncheon,’ North Carolina’s Azalea Festival garden party. Azalea sculpture by Gary Caldwell and Holly Felice.

Airlie Gardens Visit

We’re in love.

We caught up with Scott Childs, the grounds maintenance supervisor, who answered our Qs by email. Below, check out his tips on peak bloom times, mulching and fertilizing.

And then keep exploring more photos (that look like paintings) from our visit.

When are the peak weeks to visit Airlie Gardens for the showiest camellias?
The Sasanquas peak bloom in October through November. The Japonicas peak in February and early March. Between these two groups and their many cultivars, on a good year, we have camellias blooming from September into April.

Which camellias are crowd favorites?
The Japonicas are probably preferred over the Sasanquas. They are both beautiful but the South Japonicas are quintessential.

How are the camellias maintained at Airlie throughout the year?
We keep them mulched, that is it. Our gardens have been cultivated for over 100 years so we have a great soil ecosystem.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Camellia sasanqua hybrid.

Camellia shrubs eventually become small trees.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

What, if any, pest concerns are there for camellias at Airlie?
The biggest issue I run into is root rot. Camellias are shallow rooted and do not like too much mulch—especially in contact with the trunk.

Any tips on growing camellias?
Soil conditions vary but they need moist well-drained soil. They will not tolerate standing water. Unless you have soil rich in iron, make sure that you use a fertilizer with iron in it. Also micro nutrient deficiency can be an issue so it often is worth buying a special azalea-camellia fertilizer for them.

—TH

 

Airlie Gardens Visit

This grouping of bald cypresses is a show-stopper. Taxodium distichum can live up to 600 years and are native to the region.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

Bald cypress cones are small and round.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Our new desktop wallpaper.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

The sasanquas were peaking. We can only imagine the japonicas that this garden delivers late winter into early spring.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

A parade of pansies. The hardiest of fall/winter bloomers.

Airlie Gardens Visit

The Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel was created out of recycled bottles by Virginia Wright-Frierson in 2004. We’ll have to return on a sunnier day to fully appreciate its kaleidoscope of colors.

Airlie Gardens Visit

The gardens become ‘Enchanted Airlie’ in the evenings between Thanksgiving and Christmas since 2005. Guests enjoy a spectacular walking experience through the grounds surrounded by over a half millions bulbs.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Loquat trees, left and right, invite visitors into this Japanese garden.

Airlie Gardens Visit

We’re still lost in this water feature.

Airlie Gardens Visit

The Crepe myrtles were barking.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

That’s about as close as we’re getting.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

So inviting…

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

Some of the best conversations are had between two ferns.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Farfugium japonicum ‘Gigantea.’

Airlie Gardens Visit

The lakes at Airlie Gardens were added by Sarah Jones in 1901-1902. The pergola (left) was built in 1904.

Airlie Gardens Visit

This area beneath the pergola, needless to say, is a hotspot for weddings.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

Is that a great blue heron?

Airlie Gardens Visit

Indeed it is…Calling all birders, Airlie hosts a ‘Bird Bonanza’ in the fall and offers bird hikes throughout the year.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium).

Airlie Gardens Visit

At last…We enter the Camellia Garden.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Where are all the blooms? Well, most of the camellias in this collection are japonicas, which will bloom February through March.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Well, we weren’t completely out of luck.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

Most camellias have little to no smell, but sasanquas are known to be a bit more fragrant than the japonicas.

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

Airlie Gardens Visit

Fatsia (Fatsia japonica).

Airlie Gardens Visit

The most scarlet of camellias that we spotted.

Airlie Gardens Visit

One last family photo beneath the lights.

We couldn’t resist carrying this camellia around with us all the time. Get yours here!

 

  • lemurleap

    Lovely!

  • annieNC

    what is the name of that last photo before the camera one…pink ball flower…gorgeous!

    • Hi Annie, Our apologies for the delay! It’s a camellia, but we’re not sure of the hybrid. We’ll do some digging (har) and see if we can get a better ID.