Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham

Photography by Bob Ayers  gardens.duke.edu

Durham, North Carolina is a place filled with the beauty of nature.  With the cool Autumn air and annual changing of the leaves, it is a great time of year to explore the Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University in Durham.  When you visit the gardens, be sure to stay at Morehead Manor Bed and Breakfast. We (Innkeepers Monica and Daniel) show true Southern hospitality and provide a delicious gourmet, home-made breakfast each morning.

At the bottom of this blog post, we invite you to watch a video about the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, “Crown Jewel of Duke University.”  This video was written by Robert Durdey, Alice Le Ducks, and Stepheny Houghtlin.  It highlights the amazing history of how it came to be the beautiful gardens it is today.  The video was produced and directed by Claiborne M. Clark with videographers Kennard Blake, Greg Hobbs, Mick Stewart, and Tom Wilson. This blog post summarizes the content of this video.

Every day the gates to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens are open free of charge.  Over the course of an average year over 300,000 people visit from all over the world.

  • Hospital patients and their families
  • University students, faculty, and staff
  • The public young and old
  • From throughout the Triangle and beyond
There are a variety of reasons why people think this is a special place:
  • Amateur gardeners looking to steal ideas
  • Viewing the colors and varieties of the rose garden
  • Parents of university students taking their kids here for a break
  • Feeding the ducks at the pond
  • Seeing the beautiful flowers
  • Bringing kids at an early age and carries on for generations
Vibrant color in the gardens.
The momentum began with the Duke family and the establishment of the University.  Washington Duke and his two sons, Benjamin Newton Duke and James Buchanan Duke had an inherit love of plants as did the entire Duke family.  They all loved horticulture, plants, and flowers.  Even though the Dukes became business people they continued to have an interest in gardens.  The garden is named after his daughter Sarah P. Duke. Mr. Washington Duke had a great affection for Durham and was the originator of all of this. Sarah’s granddaughter, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, explains that part of it had to do with the fact that they were farmers who grew up in beautiful Durham county.  
Washington Duke was always interested in bringing in the very best in design in landscaping.  He brought in Olmstead Associates, a continuation from the Olmstead brothers who had established their reputation after designing Central Park in New York City.  They did the initial landscaping for the university.  James Duke particularly like moving water and waterfalls.  In all of his homes, he had fountains, ponds, and even lakes. The original drawings have a lake where the gardens are located.  Duke envisioned great fountains up in the main quad in front of the chapel.  He said he wanted a big fountain up in the traffic circle and for them both to flow down into a lake in the ravine. After Washington Duke died, there simply was not enough money to carry out his plan for lakes and fountains.  
The ravine eventually filled with debris and became unsightly mess instead of  a beautiful lake that Mr. Duke pictured.  Dr. Frederick Hanes, a member of the founding faculty of Duke University Medical School, walked by it every day on his way to work.  Hanes came up with the idea of an iris garden.  He outlined the plans for the Duke iris garden and naturally the Duke family wished to be involved.  Dr. Hanes was a hero to Sarah P. Duke, the namesake of the garden.  She loved his idea and wanted the patients and students to enjoy it.

Duke Memorial Garden

John C. Wister, a noted horticulturalist from Philadelphia, studied the site.  His plan was what got the garden started.  Larry T. Daniel, a former associate director for the Duke Gardens, said that iris did not grow well in the south lawn.  It was vulnerable to flooding.  They decided to relocate the garden more north to a hillside with a gentle slope for better drainage.  Sarah P. Duke died in 1936. The terrace garden had already taken shape and was beginning to attract many visitors.  The terrace is one of the most popular and signature areas of the garden.  In the spring, there is a show of tulips and pansies.  Followed by a summer filled with brightly colored annuals.  In the fall, there are the rich hues of chrysanthemums.  In recent years, an increasing number of perennial plants complement the bright annuals floral display.  

In order to create a contrast to the ornate terraces, Frederick Lubisher created a rock garden.  Lubisher imported stone from New Jersey.  When Lubisher returned to the garden fifty years after the work finished, he revealed that since there was no more money to work with, he literally had to stretch the stone.  He embedded it so naturally with plants in key places that it looks like it has always been here. The terraces and rock gardens have become the sight of many special events including weddings.  Its beauty was an indisputable great beginning.  
Distinguished Duke botanist Dr. Paul J. Kramer took over leadership of the gardens.  He served as Director of the Gardens for the next thirty years.  He tried to add an educational dimension to the garden in order to make an important connection with the academic side of the university.  Support came from the faculty who also felt the need for the beauty to surround the garden.  Horticulturalist Richard Fillmore set up various points of interest in addition to the terraces and the rock garden.  The gardens grew to fifty-five acres when the university trustees allocated the additional surrounding woodlands to protect the terraces and rock garden from campus encroachment. The boundaries are still considered sacred.  
Fillmore engaged William B.S. Leong, a noted landscape architect planner and city planner in Boston. Leong developed a new plan to incorporate the additional new acres and the results are experienced today by every visitor.  The main Anderson Street entrance was the first stage in Leong’s plan that was implemented in the early 1960’s.  The ornate iron gate, made by Joseph G. Barnes, created a contemporary gothic look. Past the gate, Leong designed a new tree line pathway with a European design to it.  It leads to the circular rose garden with stonewalls in the middle with seasonal plantings reflecting the design of the terraces.  
The Blomquist Nature Plant Garden was established in 1968 in memory of Hugo L. Blomquist, the first professor of botany at Duke University.  A handsome gatehouse marks the beginning to this area, which is a natural setting among mature trees.  Dr. Blomquist worked with ferns and wild gingers so they are abundant in this area.  Blomquist had an interest in native plants.  The area includes almost seven acres with a charming pavilion that serves as a focal point and cool retreat during summer days.
Water lillies at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham NC.
A small pond fed by a natural spring provides an ideal habitat for mosses, water lilies, and carnivorous plants that live in the bog alongside the pond.  More recently, a sunny pond has been added in the corner of the Blomquist gardens near Duke’s Admissions Office.  This site makes it even easier to grow native and aquatic plants.  A shelter for bird watching stands in the middle of the Blomquist gardens and fauna are an integral part of the Duke Garden experience.  Many animals call the Sarah P. Duke Gardens home, including squirrels, birds, fish, bees, and frogs.  
Eighty-year-old millstones in the native plant gardens serve as stairs, bridges, steps, and even a table.  Near the Blomquist garden, in the general direction of the chapel on the southwest lawn,  Richard Fillmore constructed a great spot for picnics and other gatherings.  
In 1968, there was a problem of drainage when Larry Daniels joined the staff.  The fish literally were washed out of the pool because of the extensive flooding.  They found fish on the South Lawn gasping for breath, gathered them up, and put them back in the pool.  They knew they needed to do something to prevent the flooding.  There are 55 acres in gardens and 155 acres in watershed.  Naturally, during heaven rains, water would rush down into a concentrated area.  
William L. Culberson was appointed director of the garden in 1978 and served as director for the next twenty years.  He began to look at how they would solve the problem of the flooding in the gardens.  He had an engineering professor and his students study how the water flowed.  They determined that they needed a way to capture the water and release it slowly.  Architect Linda Jewel proposed a design using a wide earthen dam to form a lake in the Northern end of the gardens.  This pond will hold 200,000 cubic feet of water and release it slowly.  Since its construction, they have had no problems whatsoever with flooding. Not only does this serve as a water retention facility, it is a beautiful embellishment.  A gravel roadway across the top of the dam provides a route for pedestrians.  This fulfills part of James Buchanan Duke’s original vision for a lake.

Beautiful impressionistic view of fall at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens by photographer Lee Capps! "Duke Gardens Autumn Abstract"

There is an Asiatic footbridge as well as exotic waterfowl and native birds that draw children to this favorite place.  The lake has become the centerpiece of the Duke Gardens.  In 1998, they renamed the arboretum after the retiring garden director.  The Culberson Asiatic Arboretum features plants that are native to the southeast which are more similar to the plants of Eastern Asia than any other part of the world.  The closely related groups of plants may be the result of plate tectonics, flooding, and mountain building.  Many of the plants grown in this garden came from seeds collected by Duke faculty from the remote interior of China.  
By definition, Asian gardens must have rocks.  The nearby quarry provided the stones and dramatic rock formations were both beautiful and educational.  Asian gardens symbolize spiritual harmony and quiet contemplation.  Dr. Laura Dorsey in naming the Gardens for Peace cited the mission of Duke Gardens as “to revere the garden as a work of art and to educated visitors who wish to learn some of the lessons that only a garden can teach.”  Volunteer programs began to flourish in the 1990’s.  There are plant sales, educational school programs, a gift shop, and a coffee shop.  They realized they needed an indoor space for lectures, meetings, educational activities, and other learning.  The gardens had outgrown their 1930’s vintage greenhouses. 
The Doris Duke Center (named for Washington Duke’s granddaughter Doris) opened in November of 2001. Director Richard A. White says it allows the university to bring in classes and professional horticulturalists use it for educational purposes.  The community comes in for recreation and it serves as a place for calmness and for community recreation.  This is around two hundred yards from the campus.  
With support from private donors as well as the University, the outlook for the future of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens looks as bright as its flowers and leaves in Autumn.  It is enhanced by Duke campus with its great chapel, vast research library, and world-class medical center.  It truly is the university’s crown jewel.

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