When it comes to Valentine’s Day, flowers are a tried-and-true classic. But why stop at a bouquet when there are acres of blossoms to explore? Alabama’s public gardens offer secret spots to snuggle with your sweetie, miles of fern-fringed paths to meander, and plenty of artful vistas for memory making. With the state’s official flower—the camellia—known for its showy winter displays, there’s no better place to stop and smell the roses (and daffodils, azaleas, violets, plumeria, cherry blossoms, and more).
1. Huntsville Botanical Garden
Along the Dogwood Trail at Huntsville Botanical Garden, you’ll find delicate sprays of white flowers and varieties of camellia and winter hellebore species. “The cool shade of the trees makes for a peaceful, intimate stroll,” says Anna Beck, director of communications and special projects. And that’s just one of the 112-acre facility’s many secluded paths. Keep an ear out for birdsong and watch for flashes of color in the trees. January and February are ideal months for birdwatching. Nearby, the Damson Aquatic Garden invites couples and Zen-seekers alike to gaze into a glassy, 110-foot-wide semicircle pool from beneath an ornate pavilion. And every lawn is an invitation to spread a blanket and lounge over a picnic.
Don’t miss the elegantly columned guest center, which debuted in 2017. And in coming weeks, the tri-petaled heads of the garden’s prize trillium collection will begin waking in shady nooks throughout the grounds. In warmer months, the Huntsville Botanical Garden boasts 1,500 species of butterflies—along with waterfalls, streams, and lush greenery—in the nation’s largest open-air butterfly house. “It’s a beautiful date location year-round,” Beck says.
Info: 4747 Bob Wallace Avenue, Huntsville. (256) 830-4447. Reserve entry time in advance. Adults, $14.
2. Birmingham Botanical Gardens
Soft pink blossoms—heralds of spring—burst forth from the branches of the “Okame” cherry trees in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens' treasured Japanese Garden. More than 150 cultivars of camellias, spectacular blooms set against glossy green foliage, dazzle throughout the grounds. And paramours, stuck at home during the pandemic, can imagine an exotic getaway within the glass walls of the Conservatory. There, rare and ancient cycads from the tropics beckon, succulent euphorbias from Africa wow, and Pacific Rim plumeria leave their heavenly scent on the air. With two dozen gardens and more than 30 original outdoor sculptures spread out over 67.5 acres, the romantic have room to roam.
More than half of the gardens’ tinkling waterfalls, fountains, and streams have been refurbished in the last few years, including its iconic North and South urns in the Formal Garden. And a new raised boardwalk, unveiled last year, invites visitors deep into the Japanese Garden’s bamboo grove, home to 34 species.
“This community treasure in the heart of Birmingham is a welcome retreat for exploring, dreaming, and celebrating,” says Mindy Keyes Black, director of communications and marketing with the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. It “truly feeds mind, body, and soul, on Valentine’s Day and throughout the year.”
Info: 2612 Lane Park Road, Birmingham. (205) 414-3950. Free admission and parking.
3. Bellingrath Gardens and Home
Nestled up to the Fowl River just inland from Mobile Bay lies Alabama’s oldest—and southernmost—public garden, a historic estate surrounded by 65 acres of vibrant plantings. Because of its location, flowers blossom a little earlier at Bellingrath Gardens and Home. “We are blessed with a mild, Gulf Coast climate,” says Sally Ericson, public relations manager. “There is plenty of room to find a favorite spot to relax and enjoy each other’s company.”
Come March, expect boldly colored azaleas, tulips, camellias, and a circular set of beds containing 2,000 rose plants in one of Ericson’s favorite spots: the Rose Garden. The formal space stays in bloom nearly all year long; and its graceful gazebos are recently refurbished. The Conservatory, located in the Rose Garden, hosts hothouse favorites such as bleeding heart vines, orchid sprays, and vivid hibiscus. Another cozy couples’ hideaway? The Secret Garden, an intimate oval ensconced in greenery and anchored by a brick-lined fountain. Don’t worry, there are several benches for canoodling.
Inside the Bellingrath Home, built in 1935 from brick and ironwork salvaged from mid-1800s Mobile, visitors find antiques, period furnishings, and a sizable porcelain collection throughout its 15 rooms. Watch for a particularly romantic piece of porcelain upstairs. In Jacob Petit’s The Picnic, two lovers barely notice the titular meal or the grinning pup at their feet. Docent-guided tours begin every half hour. Aside from renowned ecological and horticultural speakers, winter programming also includes stargazing evenings.
Info: 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore. (251) 973-2217. Adult admission for gardens only, $14; admission with home tour, $22.
Travel journalist and guide author Jessica Fender chronicles her adventures crisscrossing the country at travelerbroads.com.
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