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Last updated: Thu. Jun. 12, 2014 - 07:33 am EDT

A tour of the historic Sarah P. Duke Gardens

Commune with nature on Duke campus

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Who are the Dukes?

•Washington Duke (1820–1905) built his fortune from tobacco. According to a Duke University website, “Washington Duke offered three gifts of $100,000 each for endowment (of the university, then Trinity College), one of which was contingent upon the college admitting women 'on equal footing with men.'”

•Washington's son, James B. Duke, created the Duke Endowment, a $40-million trust fund, that benefited groups that included Trinity College, which later changed its name to Duke University to reflect the family's generosity.

•Benjamin N. (1855-1929), along with his brother James B., took over their father's tobacco company. Though for many years his philanthrophy was overshadowed by his father's and brother's, he made substantial donations to the university.

•Sarah P. Duke (1856-1936) was Benjamin's wife. She provided $20,000 for the garden.

•Doris Duke (1912–1993) the daughter of James B. and his second wife, Nanaline Holt Inman, was known for her philanthropy, jet-setting lifestyle and perhaps the lawsuits over her will. With no surviving child, her fortune went to several charities, and the estate settled with a Hare Krishna whom Duke had adopted when the woman was 35, but later negated the adoption. A movie was made about her final years and her relationship with her butler, whom she had appointed as executor.


Spring and summer offer an ideal time to view a burst of color at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

Located on the campus of Duke University in Durham, N.C., the Duke Gardens contains four sections: Doris Duke Center & Gardens with its visitors center and gift shop; the Historic Gardens that include perennials, terraces and a fish pool; H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants containing a 36th Parallel Latitude Marker; and the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum with an arched bridge and Japanese and Chinese plants.

Allow 2 to 2 1/2 hours for seeing the 55 acres, use sunscreen and bring a hat if it's a sunny day. The gardens has a snack shop, but bringing your own food can save you a bundle. Viewing the gardens is free but parking costs $1 per half-hour during certain hours.

After you pay, head up to the Doris Duke Center. You might find it hard to resist an early peek in the Terrace Gift Shop as you walk by. Colorful glass birdbaths, plants, bird-themed mugs, jewelry and more can catch your eye. But unless you want to stash it in your vehicle, save your souvenir shopping for the end.

On this day, the volunteer, Boyd, directed visitors to the free maps and assorted information on the gardens. Take your bathroom break here, because it's the only one in the gardens.

Head back down past the parking lot and enter the gates. Stop to smell the flowers lining the walkway before you descend into the circular rose garden filled with heirloom varieties and view the Roney Fountain.

Anne Roney, sister-in-law of Washington Duke, who earned a fortune in tobacco, donated the fountain in 1901. The three-tiered, crane-topped fountain found its first home on the college's East Campus. It fell into disrepair and found itself overshadowed by surrounding magnolia trees. It found a new home in the garden in 2011 after restoration, and it demands visitors' attention.

Head off down a path from the garden along the perennial alley filled with purple-flowered bugleweed and more. Walk through an open gazebo into the shade of the native plants garden. Markers line the path for an education on the many plants, including trillium, a perennial with triangular-shaped flowers.

Signs throughout all the gardens identify the plants. Some have additional features, such as a medallion marking the 36th parallel here. This latitude once divided free and slave states in the United States.

The trees along the path open up to reveal the terraces filled with colorful flowers in the Historic Gardens. Allium, with its purplish pom-pon-like flowers atop onion-type stalks, rises above many other plants, including pinkish-purple, bell-shaped foxglove flowers.

Tiptoe by the tulips, or other current flowering plant, to the Terrace Café if you crave an ice cream or some pineapple-infused tea. Continue up the steps to the pergola wrapped in wisteria for a little rest in the shade.

Once you're refreshed, continue on past the flower-sculptured medallion with a quote from Francis Bacon, “God Almighty first planted a garden; and, indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures.”

From here, you should cross Flowers Drive — watch for bus traffic — and head over to the Duke Chapel on the West Campus. Go past the statue of James B. Duke, the university's benefactor, and through the statue-covered chapel archway. Figures are carved of many notable men of the South, including Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson.

The chapel's nave will close next spring for a restoration project that will include a new roof and fixes to the stained-glass windows. Opened in 1932, it provides interdenominational services.

The Memorial Chapel inside Duke Chapel is open for prayer, but photos cannot be taken in that area. The crypt there is where Washington Duke and his two sons, Benjamin N. and James B., are entombed.

Head back to the gardens and view the many Asian-themed structures in the Asiatic Arboretum. The arched bridge, once painted white, now shines in flaming red against the green trees behind it.

To get to it, you'll pass the waterfowl area and a sign depicting the various inhabitants. You might catch a line of turtles sunning themselves as mallards and other birds swim along. View peonies and many other plants before heading through the discovery center, gazebo and finally, to that gift shop.

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