|It wouldn’t be a vacation if I didn’t get a chance to visit a public garden or two. When we traveled with the boys we always made a deal: we would do things that they wanted to do as long as they didn’t complain when mom wanted to go to a garden. It so happens that we visited Bellingrath with them in Spring 2000 when we took our then brand new pop-up camper to the Mississippi and the Alabama Coast. They tolerated the house and gardens with the promise of a boat ride on the river.
Bellingrath is just outside of Mobile, AL and was founded as a hunting camp along the Fowl River by Walter and Bessie Bellingrath (who made their money by distributing Coca Cola). Frequent travelers, the Bellingraths ventured on a European excursion in the summer of 1927. During their visit, they gained a deep appreciation for the beautiful English estates and European gardens. Upon their return, they hired prominent Mobile architect, George B. Rogers to design a garden for the couple. Since there were no landscape architects in that era, the city’s finest architect was chosen for the job.
Rogers took meandering paths and added a back drop of tall camellias and azaleas, which he and Mrs. Bellingrath collected from across the Deep South. Water features of fountains and waterfalls were installed and framed with English flagstone walkways. The waterfall starts in front of the house and travels through a series of ponds and troughs all the way down to the river. The stone had been obtained from old city sidewalks in Mobile. During the spring of 1932, a national garden club meeting was being held in Mobile. On Sunday, April 7, 1932, the Bellingraths issued a general invitation to the public to view the Gardens between one and five that afternoon. Over 5,000 Mobilians jammed the roads to see what the Bellingraths called “Belle Camp,” currently in the height of its azalea season. Mobile’s police force was needed to direct traffic. The couple was stunned.
Overwhelmed by the response, the Bellingraths soon opened the Gardens to the public for spring appreciation and named the former fishing camp Bellingrath Gardens. Two years later in 1934, the couple decided to open the Gardens year-round. Mr. Bellingrath often said the Gardens were like a beautiful woman with a different dress for each week of the year.
Spring is a few weeks early here – as in other parts of the country – so there was a fabulous azalea bloom when we visited in spite of heavy rain earlier in the week. Also blooming were delphiniums, tulips, hyacinths, cyclamen, pansies, as well as flowering kale, and chard. There were the fountains and waterfalls, hanging planters, Mirror Lake, and the Bayou Boardwalk. Mirror Lake was stunning with the blooming azaleas providing a ring around the lake reflecting the blooms. The Asian American garden was tucked away so much so that I think we missed it last time. Tea houses, bridges, water, plantings made it a fun garden to explore with something new to see around every bend.
After several days of dreary damp weather, the day was perfect - sunny and clear with temps in the 80’s made it a great day for a walk in the garden. I can relate to Bessie in her love for gardening. It was because she ran out of room in her Mobile yard for more plantings that she started the gardens at the hunting camp. I think that if I had the means, I too would like to develop a public garden but since I don’t have the means, I’ll keep digging away at my five acres. I’m itching to get back and start the gardening season!