Sandra’s journey into her family’s love affair with the public gardens of the Southeast
After the loss of my father, I suggested to Mom that we take a trip chasing azalea season across the gardens of the South. It was their 49th year together when we lost Dad, and some of our fondest memories that year came from a road trip where I drove them up to Georgia and Tennessee to visit family. On the way, we visited gardens like Maclay Gardens in Tallahassee and Callaway Gardens in Georgia.
Our very last trip together, in fact, was through the gardens of Historic Spanish Point in Sarasota. My Christmas gift to them was to take them to gardens in South Florida, but we made it no further. Dad fell ill that night, so we had to head home. He died later that week.
Mom and Dad introduced me to gardens at a very early age. They were always as a part of our annual travels down the East Coast of the United States.
While they always chose Florida as a destination, we’d stop in other states too. In Florida, before Walt Disney World existed, we always visited gardens in springtime. I have fond childhood memories of Cypress Gardens and Rainbow Springs, Masterpiece Gardens and Washington Oaks Gardens.
Traveling during azalea season meant immersing in those magical moments in the South where the sun sparkles through the Spanish moss and illuminates blooms in pink, purple, and red beneath the grand live oaks. Many of the gardens of the south were old plantations, adding a dimension of history to our explorations.
Thanks to these early travels, I’ve had a lifelong love affair with public gardens. While I’ve never been able to replicate their beauty at home, I’ve looked for them wherever I travel. And so our mother and daughter trip fell into place. Mom spent more than a month researching potential destinations, and I worked out the logistics for spending that long on the road.
A key element of our journey was to arrive in Wilmington just in time for the annual North Carolina Azalea Festival, which meant timing our travels to to catch the best azalea blooms between our Florida home and our Wilmington destination. And we did.
In a month’s time, Mom and I visited 26 formal and botanical gardens and two natural sites as well as many private sites opened to the public during the North Carolina Azalea Festival. While I’d planned to blog from the road and write a book or an app afterwards about the gardens, I had to juggle a consulting job with the travel and my life took some very different turns after this trip.
When Mom was fighting cancer, I created a photo book of the journey just for her. And now she’s gone, too. While this trip took a month, the memories will last a lifetime. I still have a book in me, but it may take a little more time before I can write it. I’d planned a guidebook, but now that I’m the last family member to have these memories – and the decades of photos that my parents took – it’s shaping up into a memoir.
Visit Southern Gardens
If you’d like to follow our itinerary, here are the gardens we visited in the spring of 2011, in the order we visited them. As I write about these gardens, I’ll add links to my articles. I’ve revisited some of the locations with John, so the story may be newer than when I visited with Mom.
Mom and I began our trip on March 22 in Tallahassee, corresponding with a Friends of Florida State Parks board meeting I was attending at the time. I was also researching the 2nd edition of the Explorer’s Guide: North Florida & the Florida Panhandle, so we made additional stops in Florida on our way to Alabama. We spent multiple days at many locations, going to a garden each day, and spent five days visiting family along the way. In all, we were on the road a full month.