Coming Up Roses: The Majesty of Sarah P. Duke Gardens

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A spring photo of the Terrace Gardens at Sarah P. Duke Gardens.
A spring photo of the Terrace Gardens at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Photo by Brian Wells.

From my neighborhood in Forest Hills, I’m within easy walking distance to many attractions that make Durham such a lively and engaging place to live. None, in my mind, is more splendid than Sarah P. Duke Gardens, which is located just off Anderson Street. The Gardens are truly world class and provide a unique place for inspiration, contemplation and relaxation.

Duke Gardens occupies about 55 acres on West Campus and features more than five miles of trails, walkways and paths. The Gardens are a memorial to Sarah Pearson Angier Duke who was the mother of Mary Duke Biddle and the wife of Benjamin Duke, who was one of the university’s original benefactors.

It’s a majestic place today, but it had a modest start. In the 1920s, the location that the Gardens occupy was intended to be a lake, but funds for the project ran out, and the idea was scrapped. The Gardens began more officially in 1934 when Dr. Frederic M. Hanes, head of the Duke Department of Medicine, encouraged Sarah to donate funds to plant flowers in what was then a ravine filled with debris.

By 1935, the first plantings were in bloom but were sadly washed away with heavy rains and flooding. Sarah passed away in 1936, but Dr. Hanes persuaded her daughter Mary to contribute funds for a new garden on higher grounds as a memorial to her mother. Landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman designed the Terrace Gardens that became an iconic focal point for today’s gardens, which are divided into four sections: the Historic Gardens, the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants; the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum; and the Doris Duke Center Gardens. Sarah P. Duke Gardens was dedicated in April 1939.

Creating a garden requires a keen knowledge of the plant world, skill in horticulture – a green thumb – and a refined sense of composition and design – a green eye. The team at Duke Gardens does a terrific job with the landscaping and, on my many visits to the Gardens, I am always amazed by the array of color, the juxtaposition of different flowers and the tapestry created by mountain witch alder, weeping peach and riverbank azalea in full bloom.

Another highlight of the Gardens is the Roney Fountain, which was added in 2011. The fountain is a large, tiered structure that sits in the center of Mary Duke Biddle Rose Garden. Dating from 1897, the fountain was originally located at the entrance of Trinity College, which is now Duke’s East Campus. Over time, the fountain deteriorated and was lost in the shadows of large magnolia trees. The restored new fountain was forged from the original molds and is nothing short of spectacular as water shoots triumphantly from the bill of the crane that tops the piece.

The botanic garden is very much a public place, attracting visitors and sightseers from all over the world. Many, of course, come to Durham to visit a family member or friend who is studying or working at Duke.

In addition to looking (and often photographing) flowers, people come to the Gardens to enjoy the large grassy meadow to toss a Frisbee, play catch or just lay on a blanket to enjoy a warm day in the sun. The Gardens have also provided a backdrop for American Dance Festival performances and Duke Performances concerts, and were recently the site of stickwork sculptures by Patrick Dougherty. These towering structures were crafted into intriguing shapes from red maple and sweetgum saplings from Duke Forest.

When my children were young, my wife and I would take them to look at the fish sleekly gliding around the lily and goldfish pond and to climb on the lower branches of a large magnolia tree, which was a child’s delight. Alas, the tree succumbed to the pummeling of too many little feet. (Parents today should take note that this is among several reasons why climbing is not permitted in the Gardens.) The last days of the tree were reported in the news like those of a famous person and, in the words of one account, the tree was laid to rest in 2001.

No account of Duke Gardens would be complete without mention of the weddings. Along with Duke Chapel, the Gardens are a very popular site for such occasions. As the website says, the Gardens are romantic and provide a place for weddings from the simple to the sublime.

Scheduling an outdoor wedding in Durham is an act of faith and courage and, in the high season for weddings, the Gardens swelter like the rest of the city. I vividly remember standing in 100-degree temperatures in late August during one such wedding, watching a young couple exchange vows, as rivulets of sweat ran down my back, and my face flushed to the color of a Darcey rose.

Over the years, it’s been a pleasure to witness the many diverse celebrations that the Gardens host. On a walk through the Gardens not too long ago, I caught sight of a young man with a black moustache in the drawbridge style. Emerging from a stretch SUV limo, he was in traditional dress for an Indian wedding, wearing a white brocade sherwani, red pants, gold shoes and a bejeweled turban wrapped in gold and topped by a pink feather. What really attracted my attention was the decorative sword around the groom’s waist, the silver filigree scabbard sparkling in the yellow-white light of the summer sun.

Whether that wedding was simple or sublime, to me, it’s what makes the Bull City, and Duke Gardens, special. – David S. Pisetsky, M.D., Ph.D.

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David Pisetsky

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