At Norfolk Botanical Garden, Love is Always in Bloom

By, Michael Desplaines: CEO, Norfolk Botanical Gardens 

Looking for a summer escape that’s just around the corner?

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With more than 60 themed gardens and one of the East Coast’s largest collections of roses, azaleas, and rhododendrons, Norfolk Botanical Garden is a can’t-miss destination for tourists and residents alike.

"It's a place of extraordinary biodiversity that’s welcoming to all people,” said CEO Michael Desplaines. “Over the past 80 years, the Garden has blossomed into this gorgeous, inclusive space that offers something for everyone, from families and couples to individuals,” he said. “It’s Norfolk’s own Central Park.”

The idea for what would eventually become Norfolk Botanical Garden came from Thomas P. Thompson, Norfolk City Manager 1935-1938, and Frederic Heutte, a young horticulturalist. Heutte had a fondness for azaleas and thought Hampton Roads had a climate uniquely suited for growing the plants.

Thompson and Heutte believed that Norfolk could support an azalea garden to rival those of Charleston, S.C., which even during the depression years drew thousands of tourists annually. The City of Norfolk provided Thompson and Heutte with a seventy-five acre section of high, wooded ground and another seventy-five acres of the Little Creek Reservoir to establish a city garden.

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On June 30, 1938, Representative Norman R. Hamilton announced a Works Progress Administration (WPA) grant of $76,278 for the Azalea Garden Project.

Laboring from dawn until dusk, the labor crew cleared dense vegetation and carried the equivalent of 150 truckloads of dirt by hand to build a levee for the lake. The laborers were paid twenty-five cents an hour for their hard work.

Within less than a year, a section of underbrush had been cleared and readied for planting. By March of 1939, four thousand azaleas, two thousand rhododendrons, several thousand miscellaneous shrubs and trees and one hundred bushels of daffodils had been planted.

In August of 1939, Representative Colgate W. Darden Jr. secured and additional $138,553 for the Azalea Garden, and the founding of the Old Dominion Horticultural Society provided volunteer labor to assist the Garden.

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By 1941, the Garden displayed nearly five-thousand azaleas, and seventy-five landscaped acres that were encompassed by five miles of walking trails. Today, the Garden included 175-acres, with more than 60 themed gardens that can be viewed by tram, boat, or by foot. Themed gardens include the Bristow Butterfly Garden, the Sarah Lee Baker Perennial garden, the Virginia native Plant Garden and the Bicentennial Rose Garden. Each of these gardens allow guests to see a variety of plants – from the cultivated to the wild.

Volunteers provide more than seventeen thousand hours each year working in all aspects of the Garden’s operations. More than twenty thousand children and adults are reached every year at the Garden by programs, classes and Norfolk Botanical Garden Lectures.

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From its humble beginnings as a WPA project to its status as a nationally recognized garden that attracts visitors from around the world, Norfolk Botanical garden has experienced amazing growth.

It is both a reflection of the regions natural beauty and a reminder of its history: the African Americans who cleared the original land through the WPA grant were not allowed to use the Garden.

“As we continue to grow the Garden we are mindful of our past and indebted to those WPA workers,” Desplaines said. “Our community has inherited this remarkable space, and part of our mission now is to ensure that more people from all backgrounds have the chance to experience the Garden and to connect with nature in a meaningful way.”

Ongoing renovations to the Garden, including NATO Tower and the Administration Building, ensure that even longtime fans will find something new to discover later this year.

And, as Desplaines is quick to note, the Garden is far more than “just” flowers.

On any given day visitors can take part in a variety of programs and educational workshops, shop for gift items, or enjoy a delicious meal in the Marigold & Honey Café.

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The Garden is also an ideal backdrop to life’s most significant milestones: graduations, birthdays and, of course, weddings.

“It’s an honor every time a couple chooses the Garden as their venue and allows us to play such a significant role in their celebration,” Desplaines said. “Love is love – and, at the Garden, Love is always in bloom.”