North Carolina Azalea Festival

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The North Carolina Azalea Festival takes place every year in the city of Wilmington, North Carolina. The Festival is a non-civic organization and is highly sponsored by the local community. It celebrates local art, the floral gardens, and the history of Wilmington. The festival lasts for five days and takes place in the beginning of April. The number of participants has grown to reach over 300,000 in 2008. The Azalea Festival has become an event many travel to for vacation which has boosted Wilmington's local economy. Such businesses as car rental companies have benefited from the festival.[1] An estimated $5 million is given to the community through money raised for the festival.[2]

The North Carolina Azalea Festival is also continually aiming to provide scholarships for local students. Several scholarship opportunities are available such as the Princess Scholarship Program. This program raises approximately $28,000 each year to give away through scholarship. Through this program, one young lady becomes the recipient of the Beverly Anne Jurgensen Scholarship Award which pays for one year's full tuition to an in-state college.


The Azalea Festival began in 1948 as an idea of Dr. W. Houston Moore, M.D. Dr. Moore held a meeting in Wilmington's Chamber of Commerce with leading civil club representatives to discuss and begin planning for the first Azalea Festival.[3] The festival would take place in April 1948 and would serve the purpose of showcasing the beauty of the local gardens such as Airlie Gardens, Orton Gardens, and Greenfield Gardens.

The first sidewalk show was also held in 1953 and has continued as tradition since.[4]


The North Carolina Azalea Festival has several events that cover a period of five days. Such events include street fairs, concerts, coin shows, boxing matches, art shows, a parade, a circus, and tours of homes and gardens. Regional media such as newspapers and television stations ensure wide coverage of all events which take place during the festival. The main event of the festival is the garden tour which highlights the Wilmington area’s most beautiful gardens. The event begins with a ceremonious ribbon-cutting and the Queen, her court, the Belles, ticket holders and celebrities are all present during the tours.[5]

Personal gardens of local homeowners are often featured in the tours; however, more established gardens such as Airlie Gardens, Orton Gardens, and Greenfield Gardens are often showcased as well.


Airlie Gardens[edit]

Airlie Gardens span 67 acres (270,000 m2) of Wilmington property and was created in 1901. The gardens are less than a mile from the ocean and are filled with all types of flora. Ownership of the Gardens has changed hands many times and has gone from being a 640-acre (2.6 km2) land grant from King George II in 1735 to a now comparably small 67-acre (270,000 m2) garden open for public viewing.[6] The garden showcases some of Wilmington’s finest land and flowers and is often used to host weddings because of its beauty and several attractive venues located within. The garden tours are available to the public and are a prominent stop in Wilmington for tourists. The tours include visits to several different areas of Airlie including the butterfly garden, a mystery grave, and the Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden which showcases the BottleChapel along with both metal and ceramic sculptures.[7] Along with tours, Airlie also has summer camps and educational programs available to the public.[8]

Orton Gardens[edit]

Orton Gardens, located in Winnabow, NC, showcases a beautiful display of typical Southern flora. This garden features walking trails and has been used as a location for several popular movies including The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and A Walk to Remember. Orton Gardens began as a land grant from King Charles II in 1663. After several exchanging hands of owners over the centuries, the gardens came to rest as property of the Sprunt family and is now open to the public.[9] James Sprunt, a Purser on Confederate blockade runners during the American Civil War, purchased the plantation at age 18. James and his wife Luola added onto the Orton House in 1910, built a chapel in 1915, and also began creation of gardens on the plantation.[9] Additions to the gardens continued through James’ son, Laurence, and an automobile accident involving Laurence’s cousin in the 1930s sparked the opening of the gardens to help pay for medical costs. Since, the gardens have remained open to the public.[9]

Greenfield Gardens[edit]

Greenfield Gardens is “a lake front park featuring bald cypress and live oak trees, azaleas, camellias, roses, and crape myrtles [10]” located on South Third Street in Wilmington, NC. This garden showcases dogwoods, azaleas and other flora indigenous to the area. The gardens are part of Greenfield Park located in Wilmington.[11]

Customs and traditions[edit]


A tradition held by the Azalea Festival is the Belles. These young ladies serve as hostesses and guides to the gardens in the area. They wear antebellum attire and serve as a mark of the NC Azalea Festival. This tradition began in 1969 under Mrs. Harley Vance’s suggestion. Mrs. Harley Vance was the president of the Cape Fear Garden Club at that time.[12] The first year, seven girls played the role of Azalea Belles.[13] To become an Azalea Belle, one must apply for the position; however, precedence is given to those girls who are either daughters or granddaughters of Cape Fear Garden Club members. Girls from New Hanover County High School are next in line for receiving the honor of becoming a NC Azalea Belle.[12] If the Belle is not a member of the Cape Fear Garden Club, she may be “committee sponsored” by applying through the belle chairman.[14] New Azalea Belle policies were adopted in 2006. The number of belles needed for each year is dependent upon the size of the gardens in the tour and is determined by the belle chairman.[14] Also, a young lady may only serve as a Belle one year and may not be in the Azalea Festival Teenage Princess Pageant during the year that she serves as a belle.[14]


The North Carolina Azalea Festival has brought many known faces to the Wilmington area to serve as the Festival’s Queen. Queens arrive and are crowned during the first day of the festival. Past participants include:[4][15]

1948- Jacqueline White
1949- Martha Hyer
1950- Gregg Sherwood
1951- Margaret Sheridan
1952- Cathy Downs (actress)
1953- Alexis Smith (actress)
1954- Ella Raines
1955- Sara Shane
1956- Polly Bergen
1957- Kathryn Grayson
1958- Esther Williams
1959- Debra Paget
1960- Linda Christian
1961- Shelly Fabares
1962- Whitney Blake
1963- Nancy Malone
1964- Abby Dalton
1965- Patricia Blair
1966- Ulla Strömstedt
1967- Melody Patterson
1968- Linda Cristal
1969- Chris Noel
1970- Karen Jensen
1971- Phyllis Davis
1972- Ann Elder
1973- Joan Van Ark
1974- Sharon Gless
1975- Stephanie Braxton
1976- Rita McLaughlin
1977- Francesca James
1978- Nancy Addison
1979- Laurie Walters
1980- Lacey Neuhaus
1981- Maureen Teefy
1982- Lynda Goodfriend
1983- Tina Gayle
1984- Sharon Wyatt
1985- Phylicia Rashad (first African-American Azalea Queen)
1986- Kim Zimmer
1987- Robin Greer
1988- Kim Morgan Greene
1989- Rebeca Arthur
1990- Kate Collins
1991- Tonja Walker
1992- Clare Carey
1993- Kelly Ripa
1994- Laura Sisk
1995- Laura Bonarrigo
1996- Gina Tognoni
1997- Lauren Roman (50th Azalea Queen, first Azalea Queen born in Wilmington)
1998- Alla Korot
1999- Sydney Penny
2000- Nina Repeta
2001- Nikki Deloach
2002- Valerie Wildman
2003- Tracey Bregman
2004- Dari Alexander
2005- Kelly Packard
2006- Tanisha Lynn
2007- Amy Pietz
2008- Barbara Alyn Woods
2009- Amrapali Ambegaokar
2010- Lindsey Shaw


The Azalea Festival has been known to bring celebrities from all over the world to the southern town of Wilmington. Celebrities have served as guests, visitors, Queens, and emcees to the Festival. Some past Azalea Festival Celebrities include:[16][17]

Ronald Reagan – 1959 Festival Emcee
Michael Jordan – 1982
Cathy Downs (actress) – 1952 Azalea Queen
Andy Griffith – 1958 Festival Emcee
Phylicia Rashad (actress) – 1985 Azalea Queen
Kelly Ripa – 1993 Azalea Queen
Esther Williams – 1958 Azalea Queen
Barbara Alyn Woods (actress) – 2008 Azalea Queen
Kevin Frazier – 2008
Chelsea Cooley (Miss USA 2005) – 2008
Captain Mark Davis (USN Grand Marshal) – 2008
Lee Norris (actor) – 2008
Hilarie Burton (actress) – 2008
Chad Michael Murray (actor) – 2008
Jessica Marie Jacobs (Miss NC) – 2008
David Cook (singer) – 2009 Festival Performing Artists

Notes and references[edit]