Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Behind A Garden Wall: Aldridge Botanical Gardens

Aldridge Gardens lake vista

Aldridge Gardens is described as a "hidden jewel in the middle of Hoover, Alabama's fifth largest city." Formerly the home of Eddie and Kay Aldridge, it was donated by them to the city as a public garden. Set among woodland, the 30-acre garden provides a place of rest, reflection and recreation for its visitors.

Eddie Aldridge is a retired nurseryman. He and his father, Loren, operated Aldridge Nursery in Birmingham for about 40 years. Among their plant interests was the Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), now the State Wildflower of Alabama. Their crowning achievement was the discovery and marketing of the 'Snowflake' Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snowflake'), a chance seedling with doubled flowers. Naturally, Aldridge Gardens has a large hydrangea collection.

Sadly, Aldridge Garden Shop and Nursery no longer exists. The property was sold in 2000, and, to Eddie's chagrin, became the site of a Walgreens store. He had hoped for something better like a Class A office building.

I expect that Eddie is consoled in seeing his estate developed as a fine botanical garden. Follow me to see what grows beyond the Aldridge Garden wall.

Just beyond the gatehouse, you'll stroll across the entrance plaza with benches dominated by a sculpture, "On The Nature Of Building" by Ted Metz. If you're waiting for someone to join you, this is the place to do it.

From the beginning of your visit you'll see hydrangeas aplenty. Oakleaf Hydrangeas are deciduous shrubs native to woodlands in the Southeastern United States. They can grow to be quite large, up to 25 feet tall and twice as wide. Bark is cinnamon-colored and flaky. Enormous white flower panicles, up to 12 inches long, appear in summer and turn pink as they age. Oakleaf Hydrangeas have large, rough leaves that resemble Red Oak foliage. Fall color is spectacular. I visited in early October, so the color was only beginning to develop.

Aldridge's camellia collection featuring over 40 varieties will delight enthusiasts. Sasanquas begin the show in September. Several re-blooming azaleas enhanced the display.

The Metz work is not the only piece of outdoor sculpture in the garden. Several by Frank Fleming, like "Along for the Ride", amuse visitors (especially children).

A half-mile walking trail meanders around the 5 acre lake, and offers pleasant vistas and tasteful seating to enjoy them. Tropical plants like this Ginger Lily (Hedycium gardneri) flank a small stream that feeds the lake. Dozens of bird species may be spotted in the area, especially during their seasonal migrations. The stocked lake is also home to other aquatic species. A boat house overlooking the water is a popular spot for resting, snacking and watching wildlife.

The Shade Garden and Arbor Garden with its evergreen clematis, also feature hydrangeas, ferns, Japanese maples, and surprises around every turn. One little boy surprised us several times coming around turns, his mother in pursuit.

Which reminds me that Aldridge Gardens is a fine place to bring children for outings. Classes and workshops are often held in a large pavilion. The day we visited children were invited to a hands-on experience with bugs and worms, and a plant sale was in progress. Near the Wildflower Meadow an eerie scaffold remained, probably from a recent program on A Native American Experience.

The Aldridge home, overlooking the lake, now houses the Eddie and Kay Aldridge Art and Historical Collection Museum. The landscaping includes many other species of native plants such as a magnificent Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix), Hearts-A-Burstin' (Euonymus americanus), and a White Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia leucophylla) among other species in the bog garden.

Residents in the Birmingham area should visit Aldridge Gardens often. Those who don't live nearby should know it's well worth the drive. Mine was over 12 hours round-trip, and I'll do it again! Aldridge Gardens has a lot to offer. Every season brings new pleasures, so visit often and see what grows behind that garden wall.

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