Call me unusual, but winter is fast becoming a favorite of mine. Yes, it’s cold, and stark, and often dreary—but it’s honest, and in my growing years I’ve begun to appreciate frankness in all forms. The true beauty of winter is absence, and when it comes to gardens, good design is revealed by what remains after the pomp and parade have disappeared. Like a chef tests her creativity by limiting ingredients, a winter garden’s artistry is in subtlety and nuance. Southern gardens have long been celebrated for their extended growth seasons, but they’re also lovely when all is laid bare. This season, don’t huddle up indoors pining for spring when you could be out and about. Don a coat and experience the botanical delights that await at these top-notch arboretums, gardens, and conservatories.
North Carolina Arboretum
Nestled in the eastern corner of the Pisgah National Forest, and minutes from downtown Asheville, the North Carolina Arboretum honors the area’s rich botanical diversity. The 434-acre public garden is interspersed with coves and creeks and home to a wealth of wildlife. Peak season highlights include a native azalea preservation collection and the Rocky Cove Railroad model train exhibit, but winter is an excellent time to meander the structured pathways or delve into the arboretum’s 10 miles of hiking trails, which connect to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Seasonal color pops include snowdrops, witch hazel, red twig dogwood, and Lenten roses. Due to COVID-19, the indoor Bonsai Exhibit is closed for the 2020–2021 winter season, but guests can explore the world-renowned miniature plants from home via the arboretum’s Virtual Visits. Open daily, 8am–5pm. Admission, free; parking, $16 per vehicle. 100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way, Asheville, NC. (828) 665-2492, ncarboretum.org
Atlanta Botanical Garden
Two hours may seem like a long trip for a garden in the winter, but I have two words—Orchid Daze. February is the crowning jewel of the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s indoor plant exhibits, when its 2,000-plus orchid species collection (one of the largest in the world) is on display in full fragrant glory. The center also includes a tropical high-elevation house, where you can catch bromeliads, heliamphora, and other species native to unique climates in Borneo and the South American Andes. If you’d rather stay outside, the Camellia Walk boasts vibrant blooms from 25 different species, including the coral pink petals of the Guilio Nuccio variegated camellia. Don’t miss the several Chihuly glass sculptures, along with rare varietals in the Conifer Garden. Tickets are timed, and make sure to bring a mask. Tues–Sun, 9am–5pm. Admission, $22. 1345 Piedmont Ave, Atlanta, GA. (404) 876-5859, atlantabg.org
Biltmore Gardens and Conservatory
Like all aspects of the Biltmore Estate, the gardens and grounds emanate excellence, which makes sense, as they were designed by the same guy who planned Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of formal spaces easing into elegant natural areas can certainly be appreciated in all seasons. Whether or not you’re a houseplant addict, it’s tempting to get lost in the warmth of the conservatory, where orchids, anthuriums, and asparagus ferns spill over each other in haphazard elegance. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend wandering toward the Bass Pond. The paths are bursting with delights that get lost in busier seasons. International evergreens are interspersed throughout, like the Blue Atlas cedar, and a keen eye can catch patches of green shoots sprouting snowdrops or early narcissus. Grab a bench along the pond to watch the ducks play in the water, or take the trail to the lagoon for more wildlife.
Open daily. Admission, starting at $54, includes house. 1 Lodge St, Asheville, NC. biltmore.com
When I get antsy for spring, I head to the coast, where milder temps encourage early bloomers. This national historic landmark is one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the States, reflecting classical style with geometric designs and wide vistas of the Ashley River. It’s worth the visit for the camellias alone—think evergreen hedges bursting forth in shows of ruby, soft pink, and brilliant white. But you can also spot winter daphne, spring snowflake, and perhaps even the tulip-like blooms of the Chinese magnolia. Middleton Place is more than just a garden; as a historical site, it explores all aspects of the estate’s past, including the livelihoods of enslaved people who toiled there. Don’t miss the white swans in the rectangular reflection pool, or the sheep grazing on the Greensward. Open daily, 9am–5pm. Admission, $26. 4300 Ashley River Rd, Charleston. (843) 556-6020, middletonplace.org
For options closer to home, catch the orchid conservatory at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont, NC, and the horticultural greenhouses at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens. For more on the South Carolina Botanical Garden, see our feature Southern Botanica.