Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Norfolk Botanical Garden - Freedom, Imagination, Dreams and Flights Of Fancy

Norfolk Botanical Garden - Mermaid
Just beyond a rise at the edge of the Norfolk Botanical Garden, planes begin and end their flights at the Norfolk International Airport. The jets and noise may seem like intrusions on garden tranquility. They are sometimes, sadly. But both are symbols of freedom, imagination, dreams, flights of fancy.  

An improbable idea for a civic garden came from Frederic Heutte, a young plantsman. Heutte loved azaleas, and he observed that tidewater Virginia was almost as clement as the South Carolina lowcountry. Perfect for azaleas. This was during the Great Depression. Though I don't know for sure, I think Frederic perceived success if an azalea garden could be promoted as a tourist attraction. Charleston, SC drew thousands of tourists every year, even when money was short. He told his dream to Thomas P. Thompson, Norfolk City Manager. Thompson agreed. They applied to the city of Norfolk. The city complied, giving them about 150 acres to work with.

The project needed money and labor. The "good-ole-boy" network got things started. (I don't mean that in a perjorative sense.) Summer of 1938, U.S. Congressman Norman R. Hamilton announced a Works Progress Administration (WPA) grant of $76, 278 for the garden project. The WPA in Virginia employed lots of people, unskilled and skilled, at taxpayer expense for all kinds of projects. It worked wonders for awhile.

The administrators hired over 200 African-Americans, mostly women, to prepare the site. They "carried the equivalent of 150 truck loads of dirt by hand to build a levee for the lake. The laborers were paid twenty-five cents an hour for their hard work," equivalent of about $3.00 per hour now. Probably more than I make most days as a small-business owner.

By spring of 1939, "four thousand azaleas, two thousand rhododendrons, several thousand miscellaneous shrubs and trees and one hundred bushels of daffodils had been planted."

Success breeds success. "In August of 1939, Representative Colgate W. Darden Jr. secured an additional $138, 553 for the Azalea Garden, and the founding of the Old Dominion Horticultural Society provided volunteer labor to assist the Garden. By 1941 the Garden displayed nearly five thousand azaleas, and seventy-five landscaped acres that were encompassed by five miles of walking trails."

The city got behind it in a bigger way and renamed the Azalea Garden the Norfolk Municipal Gardens. For political and economic reasons, the city promoted the gardens as the site for the International Azalea Festival.

The Norfolk Municipal Gardens was renamed Norfolk Botanical Garden after the Old Dominion Horticultural Society took over its maintenance. The stated mission was to "promote for the people of Tidewater, Virginia, a Garden that will always remain an inspiration, and lead the home gardener to greater enjoyment and accomplishment in his own yard", and more.

Other improvements have been made. Waterways, which always appeal to me, have been constructed. Boats ply them to provide visitors placid viewing experiences.

There are theme gardens: Japanese, American Colonial, Rose, Statuary, Butterfly, Native Plant, the WOW garden for children. Professional and amateur gardeners should make a point of visiting the All-America Selections Garden, where new plants with exciting potential are on display.

Visitors can tour the Norfolk Botanical Garden by foot, boat or tram. In March, we toured on foot with a garden map in hand. We like walking because we have freedom to roam, can stop when we want, look at different angles, inspect plants closely, take pictures, sit and wait, scratch and sniff.

Gardens and art are essentially the same. I think gardens are the epitome, for they are sculptures we can enter to involve all our senses. The flying mermaid sculpture and an exhibit of paintings were the perfect segue to what we found behind the garden wall.

At the end of an ample plaza we found a pergola flanked by Edgworthia chrysantha and draped with Gelsemium sempervirens. It was our first chance to enjoy a fragrant view overlooking the boat basin to the Sarah Lee Baker Perennial Garden beyond.

Japanese gardens quietly invite visitors to enter, so we did. Stone, water, thoughtfully trimmed plants and a Japanese garden bell enhanced the tranquility of the moment and subdued any disturbance from the airport beyond.

The Sarah Lee Baker Perennial Garden features a dramatic limestone fountain and terraced canals. Over 200 varieties of perennials and bulbs paint the landscape with seasonal splashes of color. The backdrop of Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Aurea' and Magnolia x soulangeana was spectacular. This perennial garden is a fitting tribute to one of Norfolk's most important patrons. Mrs. Baker's influence is palpable. Sarah Lee Baker (1910-2002) was the wife of prominent businessman Isaac Mitchell Baker of Norfolk.

As we strolled to the Renaissance Court, we noticed photographers with some serious equipment trained on nearby pines. They said bald eagles were nesting in the garden. Our approach to the Court was cordoned off to protect the raptors from intrusion.

In 2003, a pair of bald eagles decided the high pines soaring above would be a fine place to begin a family. Since then the eagles have become quite an attraction. An "Eagle Cam" provided visitors around the world views of the eyrie via the internet. Views are also possible from the NATO Tower and the Renaissance Court.

The female eagle was killed, tragically, in 2011 when she collided with an airplane while hunting food for her three fledglings. The young were removed to a wildlife center until they could be released to the wild that summer. An impressive sculpture of an eagle in flight and a plaque commemorates her life.

Apparently her mate began a new romance for the nest was home to eaglets once again in spring 2012. The nesting season lasts from December through July.

Near the Renaissance Court along the Camellia Allee, we came upon a delightful bronze sculpture of graceful dancers by Mario Korbel. They seemed to float above a marble base inscribed with a flight of fancy by Arther Morris of Norfolk.

There Are
So Many Gods
So Many Creeds
So Many Paths
That Wind And Wind
Just The Art Of Being Kind
Is All This Sad World Needs

Arther Morris was the father of noted sculptor Virginia Morris Pollak.

Korbel's sculpture was removed from the garden for awhile for restoration, which is complete. Since the camellias were in bloom, someone thoughtfully dressed them with a few blossoms. A smaller version of the sculpture may be seen at the Cooper Gallery, Lewisburg, WV.

Behind the Renaissance Court, a statuary garden leads to a view of Lake Whitehurst. Stony attendants include Phidias, Rubens, Canova, Durer, Thomas Crawford, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Murillo, Raphael and Rembrandt.

The Norfolk Botanical Garden was rich with pleasant spring scenes and blazing floral displays. I was particularly impressed by an imaginative espaliered cordon.

Gardeners who anticipate new plant releases will appreciate that the Norfolk Botanical Garden is an official All-America Selections Display Garden. The mission of All-America Selections is "to promote new garden varieties with superior garden performance judged in impartial trials in North America." The AAS tests plants at gardens nationwide. Superior selections are named AAS Winners. At AAS Display Gardens, visitors can see plant selections up close and visualize how they might use them in their home landscapes.

It seems that every botanical garden nowadays has a children's garden. If not, they should. Children's gardens are fun and educational, introducing young ones to nature, science, art, freedom to explore and the joy of growing. Norfolk's World Of Wonders is especially well-conceived. The sculpted caterpillar arbor was fun. A passing grown-up jogger couldn't resist going through it back and forth.

There is more to enjoy than one can take in on a single day, or even in a single season. You really need to visit often. The best way to do that is to become a Garden Member. For a reasonable fee you get free admission, which makes it easy to drop in on a whim, and lots of other perks such as discounts, a subscription to Norfolk's garden magazine, and borrowing privileges at the Huette Horticultural Library.

The Norfolk Botanical Garden is a member of the American Horticulture Society Reciprocal Admissions Program. So with your membership at Norfolk, you get free or discounted admission to over 230 other member gardens in the U.S. for as long as your membership is current. You can't beat that.

Become a member of the Norfolk Botanical Garden, visit often, learn, enjoy, imagine, dream, let your spirit soar. Maybe I'll see you there.

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Norfolk Botanical Garden canal in spring.

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