It’s Belle Weather!

by Elaine Henson |

Spring, ah… glorious spring. We all love the warmer temperatures, birds tweeting, trees and shrubs budding and blooming; all are signs that spring is here. In southeastern North Carolina, spring weather also means belle weather: weather that brings out the Cape Fear Garden Club’s Azalea Belles© all over town, dressed in the elaborate gowns shown in these photos at beautiful Airlie Gardens.

The belles’ main duty is to appear in the gardens during the annual Azalea Garden Tour, which is sponsored by the Cape Fear Garden Club. The tour dates back to 1953, but the belles made their debut during the 1969 tour. They have grown from 7 that first year to 132 in 2016. The belles must be at least 16 years of age and are from various New Hanover County high schools. They select their antebellum dresses, complete with hoop skirts and parasols, from three local dressmakers. Azalea Belles have become ambassadors, not only with the Azalea Garden Tour, but also with the North Carolina Azalea Festival.

The 2016 Azalea Garden Tour runs April 8, 9 and 10 with the twelve gardens open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, with the exception of Airlie Gardens, which is only open Saturday and Sunday. The $25 tickets are good for all three days and can be purchased at each garden, online at www.azaleagardentour.org, at ticket outlets listed on the website, and at the North Carolina Azalea Festival office at Oleander Oaks. You can also see the list of the twelve gardens, descriptions, and other information on the website.

“Stepping into Spring” is the theme chosen by 2016 Tour Chairman Kimberly Exum. She has selected a variety of gardens ranging from a third generation horse farm to the historic gardens of UNCW’s Kenan and Wise Houses. One garden in Forest Hills runs along Burnt Mill Creek and another has over 200 azaleas in 1.3 acres. There are also small to average size gardens with a more formal look, one that offsets a large rambling yard with gravel and marble-studded paths. A Myrtle Grove Road garden has an outside living space under century old live oaks while a small garden is filled with plants, paths and art but has no grass to maintain. The outdoor space created by one garden owner, who is also an artist, shows how you can “paint” with flowers, and the garden overlooking the canal at Carolina Beach is a soothing oasis. Last but certainly not least, 67 acre Airlie Gardens will be open Saturday and Sunday. A new feature of the tour this year is Spectrum Gallery artists scattered throughout the gardens painting “en plein air” throughout the weekend.

The tour opens with the Ribbon Cutting at the Hugh Morton Amphitheater at Greenfield Lake at 10 a.m. on Friday, April 8. No ticket is required to attend this event, and parking will be available at Legion Stadium, 2221 Carolina Beach Road, with a free shuttle to the event. The amphitheater has 1200 seats and is handicap accessible. The Parade of Belles featuring all 132 Azalea Belles opens the ceremony which also introduces festival celebrities, North Carolina Azalea Festival officers and other dignitaries. It concludes with Queen Azalea cutting the ribbon to officially open the tour followed by a reception in the Dr. Heber W. Johnson Rotary Garden. There, the “cookie ladies,” in their azalea pink aprons, offer trays of beautiful homemade goodies and pour punch for all in attendance.

After the blooms have faded and the belles have turned in their gowns, the Cape Fear Garden Club will award the profits from the tour. In October, all profits are given back to the community in the form of horticulture and beautification grants. Nonprofits can begin the grant process now by going to www.capefeargardenclub.org and clicking on the Grant link for guidelines and applications, which will be accepted May 1 to June 15, 2016. Last fall, Cape Fear Garden Club awarded $63,000 in grants, including two scholarships and an annual donation to the Audubon Society. In 2014 the figure was over $93,000.

By Elaine B. Henson

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