Sights and Scents at Airlie Gardens

A couple of weeks ago on a Saturday morning, the East Coast Fragrance Society took a fragrance walk through Wilmington’s famed Airlie Gardens. Airlie Gardens is home to the oldest live oak on the East Coast. In 1545, an acorn fell to the ground and grew into what is now lovingly called, “The Airlie Oak”.  What once was private property owned by the Pembroke Jones family in the late 1880’s, the expansive garden is now open for the public’s enjoyment. The  original owners were  Sarah Green and Pembroke Jones.  The family named “the place Airlie in honor of his family home in Scotland, and Sarah calls it Airlie-on-the-Sound.”

Our group arrived to the garden on a cool morning. It had recently rained. The grounds were drenched. We had to hop over many water puddles during the walk. The garden trail is approximately .9 miles starting at the garden services center. The entrance fee is $10.00 per person, unless you are a New Hanover county resident, which we are, so we got in for $5.00. I felt special.

The little group started the walk with our maps and pencils in hand to record our experiences olfactory wise. Honestly, the beautiful assault on our sights made it difficult for us to switch to using our noses. You should try turning off your sight and turning on your sense of smell. It is darn hard.


Honeysuckled Clipboard

The first garden we went into was the Seasonal Garden. Our only male said, “I smell wood,” many times in this garden. There was fresh laid, woody mulch protecting the tulips and seasonal bulbs. So yeah, wood was the star here. There were colorful tulips, but they had no fragrance.

Next we walked to the Airlie Oak. AMAZING. The oak trees were full of spanish moss. We walked around the oak and were in awe of it’s gigantic burls. Jaw dropping gorgeous. Here is a slideshow of the oak tree. This tree is such a treasure. While I stood amongst the hanging moss of this immense tree, I was reminded of the life-giving tree in the movie Avatar. It was a powerful moment. I noticed the spanish moss had no discernible smell. The ozonic storm smell was heavy in the air and probably overtook my olfactory sense.

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The 500 year old Airlie Oak

Next, we walked over to Bradley Creek. Bradley Creek is a waterway flowing inland from the intracoastal waterway. Finally, we smelled something beside petrichor, ozone and damp mulch.  Hey, don’t get me wrong, petrichor and damp mulch are some good smelling stuff, but in this spot, we smelled wet and spicy things. We were standing in a clover patch and I think the rain made the clovers more intense. Have you smelled clovers before? They are green and spicy. Nice!


Bradley Creek

We continued our walk and noticed a distinct, floral smell in a corridor of wind that passed through our group.

“Do you smell that?” one woman said.
“I do. I do. I can smell it on the wind,” I answered.
“It’s only right here in this spot,” and she moved her arms from left to right like a hula girl. “If I step away, it is gone.”
“I don’t see any flowers. How odd,” I mused.

We huddled in the air current and inhaled deeply. Smiles all around! This is why we came. To experience just this! We smelled flowers and heady ones at that. There were no flowers with scent anywhere near our group. We were confused, but happy. In hindsight, I know where the floral scented air was emanating from, but that is later on in the story. I bet you are on the edge of your seat!

We moved onto the Spring Garden and on our way, people talked of the pine smell. Did I mention that North Carolina is the Pine Tree State? We were covered in the crisp smell of pine needles and resins. It was practically falling on us. I love the smell of pine. It is a comfort smell for me.

Back to the Spring Garden. FUN FACT: There are approximately 100,000 azalea bushes in Airlie Gardens and to see them in full bloom is majestic! Unfortunately, the azaleas were in their last stages and we only saw a few in bloom. This garden has a bubbling fountain and we floated a camellia in the water. Lovely!

Floating Camellia

Our next stop was the Camellia Garden. This garden has over 300 species of camellias. Sadly, camellia has no fragrance, but they are soft and complex and beautiful. This garden is a feast for the eyes and was filled with honeysuckle too. Of course, we sniffed and sniffed the honeyed sweetness and tasted a few drops of the nectar. We talked about being reminded of our childhoods.

Camellia Garden

Finally, we were inching towards the Pergola Garden. I wanted to go straight to the Pergola Garden when we started because of three things:

A. The white columned pergola with marble steps leading to the lake.
B. The swans.
C. The jasmine. The suspense was killing me.

The Swans, Cygnets and Wisteria

We walked around a bend and there was the jasmine. Oodles of it. We enjoyed smashing our faces in the flowers and feeling giddy with the indolic, sweet, narcotic fragrance. I plucked three sprigs and brought it home with me.

Of course, no visit to Airlie is complete without a visit to the Minnie Evans Bottle Gardens. Have a look at the pictures. This little haven is the epitome of cool art!

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Minnie Evans Bottle Garden. I think I spied a perfume bottle!

All in all, our springtime fragrance walk was fun, relaxing and helped us re-focus how we use our senses. Along with sight, our sniffer is a glorious gift and we should use this marvel more often! We will do it again next springtime. Please join us!!

Do you want to learn more about Airlie Gardens? The website is loaded with information about the history as well as programs, events and environmental impact.

Founder, East Coast Fragrance Society

P.S. Can you guess where the fragrant air was flowing from? Before writing this post, I studied my notes on my garden map and made the connection. The exact spot where we were standing during our mystery fragrance experience was in a direct line across the lake from the jasmine.  I had an AH-HA moment!

This walk Smelled Downright Gorgeous!!

Photos taken by P. Hales Gordo




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