Most visitors to the Outer Banks are there for the white sandy beaches, towering lighthouses, and shifting sand dunes. The last thing they expect to find is a traditional English flower garden.
But on Roanoke Island, that is exactly what awaits them. Nestled among the trees at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on the north end of the island, the Elizabethan Gardens are a special place of peace and natural beauty amidst the crush of the tourist-laden beach resorts less than ten miles away. And although the Gardens are becoming a major draw for Roanoke Island (visitors from all 50 states and 44 foreign countries have signed the guest book), they remain, for now, somewhat of a secret.
The colorful serene Gardens are home to hundreds of species of wildflowers, trees, herbs, and shrubs, as well as a substantial collection of valuable antique garden ornaments and ancient statuary, all to please the senses year-round. Masses of blooming rhododendron, tulips, azaleas and dogwoods peak in late April. Magnolias, lilies, and hydrangeas reach bloom in late July. And marigolds, impatiens, and hibiscus provide brilliant autumn color. Even a rare Outer Banks snowstorm transforms the Gardens into a winter fantasy.
The Gardens were created with one purpose in mind: to honor the Elizabethan heritage of Roanoke Island and North Carolina. The Gardens are a memorial to Sir Walter Raleigh's legendary lost colony of 1587, which settled, lived, and vanished on the very site where the Gardens now stand.
In 1950, the Garden Club of North Carolina first proposed the project as a modest two-acre traditional English flower garden costing $10,000. The club leased a tract of land from the Roanoke Island Historical Association, which then owned the site on the island's north end where the colonists lived.
From that point forward, the Garden project took on a life of its own. A Georgia aristocrat named Hay Whitney caught wind of the project and in 1953 donated $100,000 worth of ancient Italian statuary from his estate to the Garden Club. Included were a stunning fountain and pool, a set of four statues modeled after Roman gods and goddesses, a porphyry marble well head, and several other historically valuable pieces.
The Garden Club immediately scrapped the original two-acre plan and embarked on an ambitious fundraising project to fund a $250,000 Garden plan that covered ten acres. The Gardens were completed in 1956 and were immediately hailed as one of the most beautiful gardens in the country. True to their mission, the Garden Club dedicated them to the colonists.
"Down the centuries English women have built gardens to the glory of God, the beauty of countryside and the comfort of their souls," reads the dedication plaque at the Gardens entrance. "The women of the Garden Club of North Carolina, Inc., have planted this garden in memory of the valiant men and women who founded the first English colony in America."
The Gardens complex is actually comprised of four major garden areas connected by landscaped pathways. Visitors are greeted at the Gate House, a gabled structure modeled after a 16th-century orangery and furnished with period antiques. An adjacent courtyard features as its centerpiece a white marble Italian fountain bordered by formal parterres of seasonal flowers. Shakespeare's Herb Garden features a number of medicinal, odorous and culinary plants, including 24 herbs that the Bard used in his plays.
From there, lush paths lined with azaleas, dogwoods, bulbs and spring annuals meander beneath wax myrtles and stately live oaks (some of which were seedlings during the colonists' tenure on Roanoke). Tasteful directional signs point visitors towards hidden alcoves and private spots throughout the grounds.
For example, around one bend lies the stunning Queen's Rose Garden. The walled garden is laid out in a checkerboard pattern of paved walkways lined with period ornaments. Summer is exceptionally beautiful when the grandiflora, floribunda, hybrid tea and climbing roses fill the air with an amazing fragrance.
The formal symmetry of the rose garden is in direct contrast to the Woodland and Wildlife Garden, which preserves the natural environment. The Overlook Terrace is an open grassy vale bordered by Roanoke Sound and has served as t a breathtaking backdrop for hundreds of weddings.
The inspiration for the Gardens, however, is the spectacular 100 square-foot Sunken Garden. Encircled by an 11-foot allee of native yaupon, the garden's focal point ids Hay's donated Italian fountain, pool and balustrade. Eight parterres planted with flowers that bloom during three seasons surround the fountain in formal English style. Statues of mythological figures stand watch of the garden.
Just north of the Sunken Garden is the Gazebo, a 16th-century reproduction thatched with English reed and commanding a spectacular view of Roanoke Sound. It is a quiet nook where visitors can contemplate the fate of the lost colony.
Or they may consider the same subject at the statue of Virginia Dare, nestled in a verdant azalea-lined alcove. The first English child born in America, Virginia was a member of the fated colony that disappeared in to the wilderness.
The story behind her statue is just as fascinating. Crafted by an expatriated American sculptor named Maria Louisa Ander in the 1850s, the figure's history spans nearly 100 years and half the globe. Ander created the figure in Rome, then shipped it to America for exhibition. But it the ship sank in a storm off Spain, and the statue remained on the sea floor for two years until salvers finally raised it and sent it on to Boston for sale.
A New York collector purchased it and had it removed to his New York studio. But the studio soon thereafter burned to the grounds, killing the collector. The estate refused to make good on the payment for Virginia, and it reverted to Ander's possession. Desperate to have the work placed where it would be appreciated, she willed it to the State of North Carolina, and upon her death in 1926, Virginia traveled to Raleigh, where she was placed on exhibit in the Hall of History.
However, it soon became the subject of controversy, as Virginia was clad only in a fishnet. After fielding numerous complaints, the Hall of History packed Virginia up and put her in the basement where she remained for several years until a state official found her and put her back on display.
After Paul Green penned The Lost Colony in 1935, state officials donated the statue to him, and it remained in his possession until 1951. That year, he donated it to the Garden Club for placement in the Gardens. And so, after nearly 100 years after her creation-and 350 years after her subject's birth-Virginia came home to Roanoke Island.
A local legend persists that Virginia grew up among the local Indians and that her spirit roams Roanoke Island in the form of a white doe. One visit to the tranquil Elizabethan Gardens will convince you that, at the very least, her memory is alive and well.