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Elizabethan Gardens - The Outer Banks

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by Gail Clifford MD (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer and photographer traveling the world, often following my daughter. Visit our site at and follow us on Instagram @ABLETravelPhoto
Published June 12th 2022
Roanoke Island, NC, Queen Elizabeth I, Statue,Elizabethan Garden, Fort Raleigh, herb garden, antique garden style
Elizabethan Garden, Queen Elizabeth I, Roanoke, NC, OBX

If you love gardens or open spaces in nature, you'll treasure your visit to these Elizabethan Gardens on Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Take a stroll with me through the gardens crafted to honor the historic Roanoke Island colonists. These gardens were inspired in 1950 by four civic-minded souls visiting the Fort Raleigh National Historic site and the Lost Colony Outdoor Drama. From that fortuitous meeting came the idea to have the Garden Club of North Carolina sponsor a two-acre garden on this 10-acre tract adjoining Fort Riley. Their plan to memorialize Sir Walter Raleigh and answer this question: "If the lost colonist were to have been successful here what kind of garden would they have created?" brought these imaginative concepts to fruition.

Important dates kept very much front of mind for the garden include the initial construction commencing on June 2, 1953, the day Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. Then, the formal opening day occurred on August 18, 1960, Virginia Dare's 373rd birthday. More about her shortly.

We benefit now from their ideas to highlight the garden with flowering blossoms across the seasons including wintertime camellias, spring bulbs, summer crepe myrtles, and autumn salvia and ornamental grasses. Anything that adds color and life with the beautiful bay as a backdrop.

Roanoke Island, NC, Elizabethan Garden, Fort Raleigh, herb garden, antique garden style
Shakespeare Herb Garden at the Elizabethan Gardens, Roanoke Island, NC OBXNow

In addition, if you're willing to spend the time listening to the commentary as you progress through the garden, you'll learn history and explore extra nooks and crannies you wouldn't know to search for as evidenced here:

"The gatehouse was made from warm-colored handmade bricks from the Silas Lucas kiln in Wilson, NC, that were baked before the turn of the century. The architecture is taken from a 16th-century orangery with a flagstone floor, hand-hewn beams, and a wide door featuring a cross design. Above the outside entrance is a sculptural stone coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth the 1st. Orangeries were built to winter this exotic fruit. Oranges were introduced from China through the overland trade routes developed in the 14th and 15th centuries. They gradually made their way from the near east to southern Europe, into France and England. The first orangery was built by Henry II of France but, naturally, Henry the eighth of England had to have one, too. Orange trees were placed in huge tubs and brought into the orangeries for the winter to protect them from frost."
Transcribed from the audio tour

I do enjoy the ability to learn as I go and be able to search for a specific item, such as the detail found on the sculptures of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America who disappeared with the Lost Colony despite her grandfather's efforts to find his daughter and her family. It's also true of the Lion Couchant Birdbath.

But it needn't be "overly" educational if you will when you have children or people with a variety of interests with you. Pick and choose how to spend your time.

Enter the gardens from the gatehouse, enjoy the bursts of color, hear the burble of the white Carrera marble pineapple fountain welcoming your visit, smell the rosemary and basil, and feel transported back to Elizabethan times. Eschew technology and allow yourself to wander at will. There are plenty of markers to identify plants for you, whether in Shakespeare's herb garden, the perennial garden, or the seasonal flower beds.

A fan of impressive entrances, this garden contains one of the best with handmade bricks laid to hold 15-feet-tall iron gates I learned once hung at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. When I was a teen, I'd have to run errands up and down "Embassy Row" so felt a connection to the gates.

Take the leisurely stroll along President's Walk, named for former presidents of the Garden Club of North Carolina, and reach the larger-than-life statue of Queen Elizabeth I which is, importantly, the largest such statue in the world honoring Queen Elizabeth I. In a then-meets-now experience, Queen Elizabeth's dress (don't worry, you can touch it!) was based on a design by Joan Brumback, a Roanoke Island costume designer who contributes to the local theater group that performs here. If you remember your history, you'll realize that single rose in Queen Elizabeth's hand symbolizes the House of Tudor. She was the last reigning monarch of that Dynasty.

This magnificent statue is the spot where most will first spy the Great Lawn. In Henry VIII's time, an open grassland was a sign of great wealth, where one could afford to leave land idle for recreation instead of as a source of crops or animal grazing. Today, it's an excellent place for a wedding or community gathering.

Continue along the Osmanthus Walk and pass the Magnolia Walk to the right (east) to reach the Mount and Well Head. This is the highest point in the garden. For castles, this was a defensive position. Later in Europe, they became landscape elements, especially popular in sunken gardens. This spot is useful to listen to the audio. You do need to know to look for the rope markings, but the coat of arms symbolizes the union of two families, likely through marriage. Renaissance motifs complete the piece.

Perhaps my favorite statue of the garden sprung from a childhood fascination with Virginia Dare, the missing little girl from the Roanoke, Virginia Lost Colony, I ventured east down the path to sit with the Virginia Dare Statue. The audio commentary illuminates the treacherous journey the statue had to reach this resting place:

"A figure of quiet hope, wide-browed and intelligent, Virginia Dare, the first child with the first English colony in the new world stands gazing toward the future despite the odds of the history, mystery, and fantasy that surround her. This Carrera marble statue is an idealized version of how Virginia Dare might have looked as a grown woman. In 1859, American sculptor Maria Luiza Lander carved a statue while in Rome. Mystery and intrigue surround both artist and statue after an incredibly hectic existence including two years shipwrecked at the bottom of the Atlantic off the coast of Spain, a controversial tenure in the State Hall of History in the early '20s until it was banished to storage. Then a short stay with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Green, his estate donated the statue to the Oaks Center - Chapel Hill. Green decided to give it to the Gardens so the Virginia Dare statue could stand on the island of her birth in her own niche at the foot of an ancient Live Oak watching dreamily beyond the trees toward the softened surge of the nearby Roanoke Sound. Well, we do not know if Virginia Dare grew to adulthood. A legend persists that she did grow up among the Algonquian Indians and that her spirit roams Roanoke Island in the form of a white doe. Lander must have been aware of her legend. Her Virginia Dare features include native elements. Instead of schoolbooks, she holds a fishnet draped about her waist. About her neck and arms, she wears the laces of an American Indian Princess and instead of a royal greyhound a heron accompanies her."

My visit to the Elizabethan Gardens renewed my wish for young Virginia Dare to have lived a long and happy life with people that loved her.

Fittingly, perhaps, then, to move on to the most coveted wedding spot, the Terrace and Gazebo. The forward balcony-like space looks across Roanoke Sound towards the Wright Memorial at Kitty Hawk. The river gods are satisfied with their birdbath sculpture on this Overlook Terrace and gargoyle benches are noted by the eagle-eyed visitor. There's so much detail here, that it's easy to overlook any number of items. And an excellent reason for return visits, especially if you live nearby.

The Gazebo, constructed with 16th-century tools and techniques, was built of hand-hewn oak posts and beams locked together without modern nails, like how the Quechua people in Peru worked with stone. The workmanship is especially appreciated as it allows great views of Roanoke Sound. It's a wonderful place to find a bench and listen to the symphony of nature's lapping waves stimulate the imagination.

Head into the Sunken Garden from the North or continue to explore along the Oak Walk. If you follow the former, you'll find an intricate pattern of 32 identical clipped dwarf yaupon patterns that I witnessed children solve like mazes, all under the watchful eye of their parents and the two-tiered statue of Aphrodite. The advantage over the high-trimmed bushes is the children remain always visible. The peals of laughter can be heard across the Great Lawn.

Roanoke Island, NC, Elizabethan Garden, Fort Raleigh, herb garden, antique garden style
Elizabethan Garden, Roanoke Island, NC OBX

Follow the Hornbeam Walk to the Fatsia Path and Camellia Walk to reach Bennett's Bench and then the Great Lawn Entrance to the east of the John White Butterfly Center to your west or pass it to stand alongside the ancient Live Oak tree and revel in her outstretched crooked arms. It's just past this ancient live Oak, thought to have been alive in 1585 when the colonists first arrived, that you'll reach the Carrera marble Lion Couchant ("lion lying down") Birdbath. The birdbath's bowl has relief cherubs but it's the lion that has the head of an animal in his front paws.

Nearing the exit, take the time to visit Odom Hall with its surprising collection of artifacts, antiques, and history. You'll pick up more stories to share with everyone back home and realize how much more there is to learn.

If you live anywhere near the area or love gardens, becoming a member allows you free admission, a 10% discount on plant sales, and invitations to events year-round.
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Where: 1411 National Park Drive Manteo, NC 27954
Your Comment
Wonderfully descriptive article Gail. I almost feel like I was there.
by Neil Follett (score: 3|4705) 349 days ago
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