North Carolina and Duke Gardens

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

The interstate plantings of the North Carolina Highway Department are so beautiful that they could cause traffic accidents from the gawking of speeding gardeners.

My oldest son just graduated from Elon University, in Elon, North Carolina.  My husband and I decided to make the graduation trip a mini-vacation so we spent four nights in Elon with two days dedicated to plants (of course).  Traveling to gardens around North Carolina is a pleasure due to the amazing roadside plantings installed by the highway department.  Instead of vast expanses of boring grass like we have in Pennsylvania, North Carolinians are treated to colorful displays of poppies, dame’s rocket, and larkspur.  Of course, it was an interstate so getting to the side to photograph the flowers was a hair-raising experience.  However, we made it:

One of our garden visiting days was spent at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina.  Duke Gardens is situated on 55 acres adjacent to Duke University’s West Campus and the Duke University Medical School.  The gardens opened in 1939, and today are comprised of four main areas: the historic terraced gardens, the native plant garden, the Asiatic Arboretum, and the Doris Duke Center for information and education.  We toured all four areas and found fascinating plants and enchanting sights everywhere we turned.

The first area, the Doris Duke Center and Gardens, encompasses the visitors’ center with educational facilities, a gift shop, and formal areas for events.  There was a wedding going on when we were there in the lovely gardens out back so we didn’t explore this part of the garden as much as we might have.

Behind the Doris Duke Center is a shady spring woodland garden.

Next to the woodland is a very interesting multi-level bog garden.

The second area, known as the Historic Gardens, is accessed down an impressive walk bordered by an allee of trees.  This area is the oldest and most formal part of the gardens with Italianate terraces full of annuals and perennials, a wisteria-covered pergola, a fish pool, a rock garden, and much more.  We ate lunch in the small shaded courtyard of the charming Terrace Cafe.

Formal entrance walk to the Historic Gardens.

The entrance walk leads to the rose garden.

The South Lawn area was filled with picnickers and surrounded by majestic southern magnolias, M. grandiflora, in full bloom.  As a northerner, I was captivated by the size and beauty of these trees, which were everywhere in NC.

The flower buds of southern magnolias are huge.

The flowers are breathtaking.

The rock garden area in the Historic Gardens.

The Iris Walk and Bridge.

I love these textures and colors.

The Terrace Cafe is in an elegant stone building surrounded by lovely shade gardens.  Out back is a  stone courtyard with outdoor seating.

The third area of Duke Gardens, and my favorite, is the H.L. Blomquist Garden, featuring over 900 species of regional natives.  The plants are very well-labeled and displayed, making it an excellent resource for gardeners interested in adding natives to their landscape.  The shady paths meander through lovely stands of  trees and shrubs underplanted with shade-loving groundcovers.

The gatehouse at the entrance of the H.L. Blomquist Garden.

Path on the hillside above the Blomquist Pavilion.

There were many mature loblolly pines, Pinus taeda.

The bark of loblolly pines is gorgeous.

This is the biggest oakleaf hydrangea, H. quercifolia, I have ever seen.

I was especially taken with this shady groundcover known as beetleweed, Galax urceolata.

I also wish this wild ginger or heartleaf, Hexastylis lewisii, would grow as a groundcover in my garden.

Duke Gardens is huge and by the time we got to the fourth area, the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, we were pretty hot and tired so not many photos were taken.  There are over 1.300 Asian species and cultivars in this collection.

A great blue heron looks for fish in the Asiatic Arboretum’s large pond with the red Ayamebashi or Iris Bridge in the background.

The shrub collection in the Asiatic Arboretum is extensive with many I had never seen before, including this large spider azalea, Rhododenron macrosepalum.

I was captivated by the orange flowers and evergreen-looking leaves on this pomegranate, Punica granatum ‘Madame Lagrelle’ (thanks for the ID help) .

I wanted to include a close up of the flowers for my good friend Donna at Garden Walk Garden Talk.  I think she may want to plant this shrub next to her orange iris!

I hope you have enjoyed your virtual tour of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.  If you are ever in North Carolina, it is definitely worth a real visit.  I have added a link to my sidebar under Places to Visit so you will always be able to find it.


Notes: Click on any photo to enlarge.  Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information.  If you want to return to my blog’s homepage to access the sidebar information (catalogues, previous articles, etc.), just click here.

Nursery Happenings:  The nursery is closed until it cools off in the fall around the middle of September.  If you are on my customer email list, look for an email.  If not, sign up by sending an email to with your name and phone number.

66 Responses to “North Carolina and Duke Gardens”

  1. I think the unlabeled tree is a Pommegranite, probably an ornamental one as the fruiting variety doesn’t have such double flowers. Like you I would like to grow the Ginger, what beautiful leaves. How nice to be visiting gardens somewhere so very different to where you live. Christina

    • Christina, I think you are right–thank you so much for identifying the mystery plant–of course now I know it won’t grow here. I grow wild ginger and some of them are quite vigorous, but the really ornamental varieties only form small clumps for me. Carolyn

  2. Judy Stogniew Says:

    Thanks Carolyn. My next visit to NC will include a visit to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. The pictures are beautiful; can’t wait to see it in person.
    The highways are beautiful with the wildflowers.
    I’ve driven on I-81 in West Virginia, and they even have rest areas with beautiful gardens. Makes traveling a bit more civilized.

  3. Stunning garden! I’d be interested to hear what the unnamed orange flowering plant is.

  4. Wow – what a stunning roadside display! It’s a color infusion! I would have figured out a way to pull over to photograph it as well.

    The Duke garden looks amazing – I love those big pines and that magnolia blossom – ah! I have a feeling I’d spend a good chunk of time at the “Iris Walk” – how incredibly lovely. Thanks for sharing all these pictures!

  5. Ah-h…breathtaking! Thank you for such a lovely tour. My favorites: the elegant bridges, the whitest magnolia blossom, and the field of papery poppies!

  6. Carolyn,
    The director of Duke gardens, Bill Lefevre, is the former Director of Bartrams. We visited him a few years ago and we have a golf cart quick tour due to time. He will know what the plant is. I have his Email if you would like it.

    • Sidney, I am pretty sure from checking Goggle images after I received the first few comments that it is a pomegranate. However, I am very interested to hear that the Duke Gardens Director came from a wonderful local Philadelphia historic garden, Bartrams Garden. Carolyn

  7. Thanks for sharing your pics! Really beautiful. The red/orange flower with shiny evergreen leaves looks like some pomegranate flowers I’ve seen, but it’s just a guess.

    I have to be sure to reserve some time for garden visits as we start looking at colleges……

  8. Looks like you had a great trip, thanks for sharing all the garden photos.

  9. What lovely gardens! Have you tried the himalayan or welsh poppies if you’re desperate for poppies in shade?

  10. I am blessed to live in North Carolina and less than 1 1/2 hrs from Duke Gardens – with travel on the highways lined with wildflowers. For more information on the NCDOT highway wildflower program go to It’s a program we North Carolinians are especially proud of.
    Thanks for this great post, Carolyn!

  11. Carolyn, these pictures are so beautiful they make me ache! Gorgeous photography job!

    • Angie, I am so glad you enjoyed the photos. It is really difficult when you are away from home with just your camera. You can’t download them to the computer and decide to retake some so your compliment is especially appreciated. Carolyn

  12. Those roadside poppies are just the best. Next year I will make it happen on our drive entrance, I will I will I will. I love the way the magnificent magnolia blooms look like ivory but the best is their fruity fragrance– Great post, I feel like I was along on the trip. Huge congrats to that bright boy for graduating!

  13. Carolyn – I like the skinny loblolly pines. They’re planted so close together. I agree, the flaky bark is beautiful.

  14. Congrats to your son. What a lovely vacation spending time with plants. That spider azaleas is waaay cool.

  15. Elizabeth P. McLean Says:

    Thank you for the visit. I have long wanted to see those gardens. You pictures make me want to try harder to get there.

    The flower is a pomegranate. Don’t you wish we could grow it ??

  16. Wow, roadside plantings, really??? They look amazing, I want to move… Thanks for the tour of the garden, that oak leaf hydrangea is amazing… The plant in the last pictures is an ornamental pomegranate, they have more double flowers than the regular types.

  17. We appreciate your life-risking stop to photograph the highway dept.’s handiwork. I have now added the Duke gardens to my to-do list.

    • Les, The story is: I had been talking about taking photos of the plantings. We were in the far left lane going 70 MPH, when suddenly my husband sited a patch and swerved across two lanes of traffic and screeched to a halt by the side of the road. My life flashed before my eyes, and he was wondering what the big deal was because he accomplished the objective. Carolyn

  18. What a great trip you had! And thanks for showing me galax, we used it all the time in the flower shop but I have never seen it growing. Good thing brides do not know it is called ‘beetleweed’!

  19. Congratulations to the graduate! The Duke gardens are gorgeous. Love that orange shrub! The roadside plantings are beautiful! I forget how lush and cool it is in NC. I need to plan a trip there. Thanks for the tour.

  20. Carolyn, you captured the spirit of Duke Gardens. I only live 20 minutes away, and your photographs make me want to visit again today! It’s nice to see the familiar through fresh eyes. Your appreciation of the loblolly pine makes me feel slightly guilty for disparaging it so many times as a weed. It’s the tree that’s first to take over old fields here, and dozens grow in the front yard. They do have beautiful bark.

    • Sheila, I am glad you think I understood Duke Gardens–great to hear from a local. We never really treasure what we have in abundance. I was the same with spicebush until someone pointed out how special it is. Unfortunately, I think one of the reasons people are more interested in native plants is because in many areas of the country, including mine, they are rare. Carolyn

  21. This is definitely a garden I would love to tour in person! It’s listed in a book we have about gardens to tour and I have made a note that you give it 5 stars. Your photographs are stunning and I appreciated being able to walk through the garden with you. You captured the serenity and beauty and quiet grandeur beautifully.

  22. The particular gatehouse in the Blomquist garden is so fitting for the woodland style. I will have to file that idea away for a garden-dream-come-true someday.

    WE must have been traveling nearly the same time through NC… I just posted today on the Biltmore gardens. The highways in western NC were not so flowered though… pity.

    Thanks for sharing!

  23. I’m so impressed by the plantings of the Carolina Highway dept. They have a lot more imagination than the Roads people over here. Could we arrange an exchange visit?

  24. Carolyn, this post is fantastic and gives me a sense of the joy you must have had when visiting. Thank you.

  25. What a treat, Carolyn! One of my plans for retirement is to take a couple of weeks each year when it is mud season in Maine and go south to visit spring. The Carolinas would be a good location for such a vacation, and I will add the Sarah P. Duke gardens to my list of destinations. Thanks. (Love the roadside flowers, too.)

  26. Love your roadside plantings, they must make any journey a joy although it must be a hazard taking your photos !!

  27. Hi Carolyn – heart-stopping images of urban planting the Carolina way. And then on to shady gardens. Quite a contrast and yet each as remarkable as the other. Dappled light with ferns, hosta and hydrangea are a remarkably colourful palette. Love the bridge in the woodland garden – wondered if that was a streambed under it or just a small ravine. Your images certainly do justice to the tour. Thanks for sharing and congratulations to your son.

  28. I hope you enjoyed the graduation too. My brother graduated from Elon, in the last class as Elon College. It certainly is a beautiful place. Thanks for the vicarious walk through of the Duke garden.

  29. Terrific virtual tour of Duke Gardens, who said you have to come to England to see such sights. The plantings of the North Carolina highways are indeed inspiring. I don’t want to see another of those Herons, they keep nicking my fish even though the pond is only a measly 6ft by 8ft.

  30. Thanks for the tour of these beautiful gardens! Alabama also has wildflowers planted along many of its highways, but none so beautiful as the display you showed! I once had a decorative pomegranate, similar to the one you feature, but I took it out with regret when I redesigned the area it was in. Seeing this one reminds me I would love to find another, more suitable spot for one.

  31. Looks like your garden, caroline.

  32. Carolyn, I absolutely enjoyed your article and pictures!!! I need to go back there to see the areas which I missed in June. It is a very unique place and worth visiting! I will post more pictures of the Sarah Duke Gardens in close future.

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