The Origins of the Historic Elizabethan Gardens on Roanoke Island

The Origins of the Historic Elizabethan Gardens on Roanoke Island

The Outer Banks of North Carolina may be best known for its beautiful beaches, abundance of wildlife and wide array of opportunities for outdoor recreation, but visitors to this popular vacation destination should not miss out on a lesser-known attraction that lies on Roanoke Island: the Elizabethan Gardens. Situated along the shores of the Roanoke Sound on the northernmost tip of the island, the Elizabethan Gardens comprises 10.5 acres and is home to more than 500 different species of plants and flowers.

The story of the Elizabethan Gardens begins in 1950, when four individuals paid a visit to the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site to view The Lost Colony outdoor drama at Roanoke Island’s Waterside Theatre. The group of visitors consisted of Ruth Louise Coltrane Cannon, a civic leader and preservationist; Inglis Fletcher, an esteemed author and historian; and British author Sir Eveyln Wench, as well as his wife, Hylda Henrietta Brook. Inspired by their trip to this historic spot on the Outer Banks, the group dreamed up with an idea to create a place that would forever pay homage to the lost colonists that attempted to settle on Roanoke Island in 1587.

Photo: ElizabethanGardens.org

They presented their idea to develop a two-acre tract along the neighboring Fort Raleigh National Park to The Garden Club of North Carolina at the nonprofit organization’s annual meeting in 1951. The pitch was a success, as The Garden Club of North Carolina voted in favor of building the future Elizabethan Gardens on property leased from the Roanoke Island Historical Association. The original plans for the development of the Elizabethan Gardens included a small, two-acre garden that exemplified the type of garden members of the Lost Colony would have potentially created had the colony not disappeared without a trace shortly after settlers landing on Roanoke Island.

Photo: ElizabethanGardens.org

Plans changed, however, when a contractor in Fayetteville, N.C., informed The Garden Club about the availability of a garden statuary he was charged with dismantling at the Greenwood Estate in Thomasville, Georgia. Although the owners of the statuary had planned to donate the structure to the Metropolitan Museum, the couple was soon convinced to gift it to the Elizabethan Gardens in commemoration of the historical significance of the first English settlement in America. Thanks to the involvement of New York landscape architects Innocenti & Webel, the site of the gardens received a series of additional gifts, including a sundial, birdbaths, benches, stone steps, a wellhead and an ancient Italian fountain. With the addition of these items, the plans for the proposed gardens changed drastically, and a significantly more elaborate plan for the overall concept of the Elizabethan Gardens was developed.

Photo: RoanokeIsland.net

The Garden Club of North Carolina put the Innocenti & Webel firm in charge of planning the gardens, which were to designed to offer a present-day take on the Elizabethan style. The team broke ground at the site on June 2, 1953, a date which held extreme significance as it was the date that Queen Elizabeth II was officially crowned the Queen of England in Westminster Abbey. Seven years later, on August 18, 1960—the 373rd anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World—the Elizabethan Gardens opened to the public.  

Photo: ElizabethanGardens.org

Today, more than half a century after the gates to the garden were first opened, the 10-acre portion of land against the edge of the Roanoke Sound is one of the most visited gardens in the entire region. Visitors can take a leisurely stroll along a series of meandering walkways to view a variety of floral and plant collections ranging from camellias to hydrangeas. A handful of full-time gardeners as well as several seasonal and part-time employees care for the collections within the Elizabethan Gardens, changing the massive displays as the seasons change throughout the year.

Although the vast majority of the gardens’ 500+ flowers and plants bloom throughout the spring, summer and fall, one of the most popular times for visitors to stop by the Elizabethan Gardens is during the winter, thanks to the popular WinterLights festival that takes place on the garden grounds each year. On select evenings from late November to mid-January, visitors can walk the pathways and experience dozens of intricate holiday light displays that transform the Elizabethan Gardens into an illuminated winter wonderland that attracts thousands of visitors to the Outer Banks during the holiday season.

Photo: NorthBeachSun.com

With a storied past that dates back to the mid-20th century—and an inspiration that dates back even further to the days the members of the Lost Colony once temporarily lived within this maritime forest on northern Roanoke Island—the Elizabethan Gardens offer something for everyone of all ages visiting this barrier island paradise to enjoy any time of the year.

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