Garden Travel

Skip the Beach – Wilmington, NC Has Gardens!

Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Garden

When you live in the Raleigh area, it’s easy to travel to the beaches of Wilmington, North Carolina. But one year I decided to skip the beach and traveled to Wilmington’s gardens instead. Wow, was I surprised.

Wilmington has a number of beautiful gardens. I started with six must-visit gems, but quickly discovered many more.

Venue flytraps in bloom

Venus flytraps in bloom / Beverly Hurley

I like unusual plants so it was easy to pick my first stop – Carolina Beach State Park and its collection of Venus flytraps. These most amazing carnivorous plants are native only within 60 to 75 miles of Wilmington so you won’t find them growing in the wild anywhere else in the world. These can be hard to spot (each is just a few inches in size) but fortunately I was there in May when they were blooming. Their tall white flowers make them easy to see along the forest floor. When not in bloom you can find the flytraps – that look like clam shells with teeth – along the sunny paths in the pocosin area of the park’s Flytrap Trail. However, you won’t find signage pointing the way. With only about 1,000 flytraps remaining in the park, they try not to draw attention to these. It’s somewhat of a scavenger hunt to find the flytraps, but well worth it when you do. You will also find sundews, pitcher plants, bladderworts and butterworts growing near by, along with huge stands of loblolly, longleaf and pond pines. The park offers free carnivorous plant hikes at 10am on Saturday and Sunday from May through September.

Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Garden

Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Garden / Beverly Hurley

Once I had seen one stand of carnivorous plants I had to see more, so I made my way to the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden. Stanley Rehder was a horticulturalist and Wilmington native who spent his life cultivating these plants. When he died in 2012 the city dedicated his outdoor lab as a park. Located behind a school, the garden entrance has a paved, level path that leads to an observation deck overlooking an amazing concentration of thousands of flytraps and pitcher plants within the small three-quarters of an acre garden. You can also venture into the garden via stepping-stones for up close views. Take note: The 2013 theft of more than 1,000 flytraps from the garden prompted the North Carolina legislature to pass a law making removal of Venus flytraps a felony.

The city has developed a Venus Flytrap Trail where you can see carnivorous plants in the wild at nearly a dozen locations. Pick up the brochure at the city’s visitors center.

Airlie Gardens

Airlie Gardens Moss Covered Trees / Beverly Hurley

“Follow the sunflowers,” was the advice from the girl at the Airlie Gardens ticket desk. This advice made it easy to know where to start my tour (at the Seasonal Garden) of this jewel of Wilmington. You can spend a day here, especially when the summer concert series is underway the first and third Friday evenings of every month May through September. Airlie Gardens started in 1901 and today is 67 acres of pure botanical garden enjoyment. Massive moss draped trees, including the Airlie Oak – North Carolina’s state champion live oak dating back to 1545 – line the level, mostly paved paths in the garden. Or you can use the garden’s tram for quick on and off stops.

Airlie Gardens Pergola Garden

Pergola Garden / Beverly Hurley

A few of my favorite spots are the Pergola Garden, a serene stop adjacent to Airlie Lake. The circa-1900 pergola here is made of native tabby, a mixture of lime, water, sand and Wrightsville Sound shells. A sweep of stairs leads to the water’s edge.

Airlie Gardens Bottle Chapel

Airlie Gardens Bottle Chapel / Beverly Hurley

The Bottle Chapel showcases one of the most unusual uses of empty bottles that one will see. It’s made of over 2,800 bottles in a mosaic design, all a tribute to artist Minnie Evans.

Airlie Gardens is known for its springtime gardens and a collection of over 100,000 azaleas and countless camellia cultivars. And throughout the property are formal display areas that bloom and provide color year-round. The visitor’s center includes a small gift shop and some informative history panels about the garden.

New Hanover County Arboretum

New Hanover County Arboretum / Beverly Hurley

My visit to the New Hanover County Arboretum resulted in my biggest garden surprise. It’s much larger (7 acres) than most North Carolina Cooperative Extension gardens and the design is beautiful. Over a dozen different sections feature rose, aquatic, Japanese, herb, butterfly, children’s, and vegetable gardens, plus several greenhouses, a koi pond and an ability garden with raised beds. And since it’s a teaching garden, the signage is great. Bring a lunch as picnics are welcomed. The Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tour – held in spring throughout Wilmington – has funded many of the gardens at the arboretum.

The Lattimer House

The Lattimer House / Beverly Hurley

Several historic gardens are near downtown Wilmington. The Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens, circa 1770, has seven separate garden areas behind the house and includes an orchard with figs and pomegranates, a crabapple espalier, and a parterre with trimmed boxwood. The 1852 Latimer House is surrounded by a restored Victorian garden. Large 150-year old magnolia trees anchor the landscape and Victorian gardens of the Bellamy Mansion, an antebellum home built between 1859 and 1861. And throughout the historic district charming homes with lovely gardens beckon you to look over the garden gates.


The Blockade Runner

The Blockage Runner / Beverly Hurley

A stay at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort on Wrightsville Beach includes the beach and gardens. A team of talented gardeners has installed a multitude of lush plantings along the hotel’s outdoor pathways, and indoors features lovely fresh floral arrangements throughout the hotel. Open-air dining overlooks these gardens and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Oceanic Restaurant on Wrightsville Beach is the place for seafood and an ocean view. The Pilot House restaurant along downtown’s Riverwalk includes outdoor dining and a view of the Cape Fear River. A cute garden shop, A Proper Garden, is just steps away from the Pilot House and worth a visit.

Other garden stops in Wilmington include a 5-mile drive around Greenfield Lake, especially in spring when the azaleas that ring the lake are in bloom. The Harbor Island Garden Club has a one-acre garden, including a pink garden celebrating breast cancer survivors and their families, on the west end of Wrightsville Beach Park. The Cape Fear Garden Club’s Azalea Garden Tour, held during the North Carolina Azalea Festival (April 11-15, 2018) features a dozen gardens ablaze in azalea blooms each spring.

For more information about Wilmington and its gardens, visit

Featured image – Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden / Beverly Hurley

Beverly Hurley is the editor of Triangle Gardener magazine and When she is not gardening, she loves to travel.