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Green Acre #338: The Duke of Gardens

The Meyer Bridge in the Asiatic Arboretum at Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina. On the front, the historic koi pond and terraces. / Photos by Stephanie Cavanaugh.


By Stephanie Cavanaugh

THERE’S NOT MUCH happening right now at Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina, which is just fine.
The 55 acres of fields and woods and ponds and walkways are taking a deserved rest from the spectacular spring show of peonies, roses, azaleas, flowering bulbs and voluminous tangles of wisteria. The splendid background of trees and groundcovers are the current stars and are best appreciated without too many flowers horning in.
Not that anyone but the groundskeepers saw the spring extravaganza this year. The gardens were closed because of Covid and just reopened on June 1.

A waterfall in the Japanese garden at Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Adjacent to the grounds of Duke University, the gardens—officially the Sarah P. Duke Gardens—were originally underwritten in 1934 by said Sarah P. Duke, the widow of one of the university’s founders. Landscape designer Ellen Biddle Shipman completed the design in 1939. It is considered her greatest work and a thoroughly deserved national architectural treasure.

Five miles of pathways wander through the gardens, passing waterfalls and koi ponds and weaving through astonishingly tall stands of trees. Be alert: Steps are everywhere, and paths are rough with stones and mulch and moss and fallen leaves. A stroller needs to be hoisted about. Grandparents, bring your muscles.

The Moss Garden path at Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

But along the paths are mosses and ferns—such ferns!—pachysandra and less common groundcovers are neatly tagged for reference. It’s astonishing to see how much will grow in sometimes less than dappled shade. The hydrangeas—one of few flowers in bloom—luxuriate under canopies of trees. The ferns are, of course, delighted.

And, oh, the forest scents.
Particularly beautiful is the Asiatic Arboretum with the most enormous stand of bamboo I’ve ever seen and plenty of ideas for using bamboo in screens, buildings and fences. An arched red bridge spans a river, waterfalls spill, and the moss garden is a cooling wonder.
Not well done is the damn map: Even with signposts dotted about, this is an easy place to get lost in. Not that straying is not enjoyable. There are plenty of gorgeous spots to sit and contemplate that lostness: benches and chairs under arbors, along streams, tucked in the woods, plus walls to perch on. Thankfully, there’s an abundance of shade on this 95-degree day.

If you’re going to get lost, this is a nice spot in which to do it at Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Guides scoot about in open jeeps—Lost, are you? Others are stationed at various junctions to point the way, but the ways wend and . . .
Suddenly you and whoever—in this case, My Prince and grandbaby Wesley—are separated and my phone is dead. How the hell . . .

It’s not all manicured landscape. A stream runs through the greenery at Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

So I, figuring surely they’ll think to go to the visitors center, make my way . . . and sit on a highly exposed (hot as hell) stone wall to wait. And wait.
A smiling guide appears: “Are you missing a husband?”
“And a grandchild,” I say.

The Bloomquist Garden of Native Plants at Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

He walkie-talkies someone, saying, “She’s waiting patiently at the visitors center.”
Patiently? Glad he thought so. Snort.
Then another smiling guide appears. “Are you Stephanie?” she asks. “I have your credit card. You left it in the parking meter. . . . It happens.”
Shortly after, my companions steam into view.
So now we’re well known at Duke Gardens.
Admission is free. They’re open from 8am to dusk 365 days a year. It is strongly suggested you visit on weekdays as the rather small parking lots fill up early on weekends and there’s no satellite parking. Parking is $2 per hour. No weapons or drones (among other less interesting things) allowed. Our visit was on a Monday and it was a joy . . .
Except for that last hour.

“Wildlife” at Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

2 thoughts on “Green Acre #338: The Duke of Gardens

  1. stephanie Cavanaugh says:

    The wild Irish Prince reports not a nip, and bugs just love that sweet skin of his. That’s not to say things might not change in the depth of summer…

  2. Maggie Hall says:

    Hate to rain on this grand “lost” tour of a wooded dukedom but no mention of mosquitoes….? But then for me – a poor wretch of a mosquito paradise Brit – it doesn’t matter, as I never step outdoors in the good ol’ US of A from April to the end of November without being drenched in 100% deet!

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