Southern Comfort at Bellingrath Gardens

A personal reflection on Bellingrath Gardens and Home, a floral and architectural wonderland on the Gulf Coast
bellingrath gardens, mirror lake
Azaleas surround Mirror Lake. Bellingrath Gardens features spreading live oak trees, elaborate floral displays, and attractive water features with fountains, urns, pools, and spills.

For me, always, Bellingath Gardens is the best, most perfect choice. Whether to celebrate a family triumph, contemplate a personal crisis, or simply empty the mind after too much immersion in a noisy and contentious world, I can think of no better place than Bellingrath Gardens and Home. Here in Alabama’s far southern reaches, perched on the Fowl River not far from Mobile Bay, sits a spectacular 65-acre botanical, floral, and architectural wonderland.

No matter the season, I know I will encounter delights at every turn—banks of white and pink azaleas in the spring; a giant circular display of red, white, and yellow roses in the summer; mounds of polychromatic chrysanthemums in the fall; robust camellias in bewildering variety come winter. At Christmas, find a stunning array of poinsettias amid the lights. And then there are the showstopping landscape and architectural features backgrounding all this florescence—the great lawn, the camellia parterre, the mermaid fountain, Mirror Lake, the Asian-American garden, the very Victorian–looking glass conservatory, the elegant house with its phenomenal antiques. And best of all, the stone grotto with its splashing spring water and panoramic views of the tawny river hedged by marsh grass, moss-hung cypress trees, and sweepingly gracious homes.I sometimes find it difficult to believe that all of this cultivation and order grew out of a rustic fishing camp. But that’s exactly what happened after Coca-Cola bottling magnate Walter D. Bellingrath purchased the land in 1917 as a place to “learn how to play.” Soon his wife, Bessie, started importing flowers from their residence in Mobile. In 1927 the couple hired local architect George B. Rogers to complete the transformation. By the mid-1930s, the Bellingraths had moved down full-time, and in an extraordinarily generous and public-spirited gesture, they opened the gardens to the public. The response from people far and wide, weary of the Great Depression and in desperate need of a little beauty and hope, was overwhelming.

Thousands still visit, especially during the spring when the azaleas are at their peak and at Christmastime when three million twinkling lights, from gatehouse to grotto and back, inspire hushed awe. But I prefer the gardens during the slow times, when a river view framed by gnarled live oak limbs or a stretch of path enlivened by dusty miller and snapdragons can be contemplated at leisure. Then, hand-in-hand with my wife or daughter, arm draped across my mother’s shoulders, or simply alone, I am most content. That, for me, is the glory and the solace of Bellingrath Gardens. Plan your visit.

By John S. Sledge | Photography Courtesy of Bellingrath Gardens and Home

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