Photos | Bellingrath Gardens and Home
Replanting after Hurricane Frederic was a longterm project at Bellingrath Gardens. Bellingrath Gardens 40 Years After Frederic (left), and Bellingrath Gardens after Frederic in 1979 (right).
By Dr. Bill Barrick, Executive Director Emeritus, Bellingrath Gardens and Home
When Hurricane Frederic struck the Gulf Coast on Sept. 12, 1979, the storm dramatically altered the landscape that Walter and Bessie Bellingrath had created on Fowl River. Bellingrath Gardens and Home was closed for six months as its staff struggled with the cleanup and repairs.
At the time, the Gardens had been a thriving tourist attraction for 47 years and had sustained only minimal damage from other storms, most notably Hurricane Camille 10 years before. The winds from Camille toppled several large oaks. After that storm, and the subsequent power outage, the staff purchased a generator to run the irrigation wells in similar emergencies.
Bellingrath Gardens and Home began in 1918, after Walter Bellingrath purchased a former fishing camp on Fowl River as a weekend retreat. His wife, Bessie, an avid gardener, began bringing in old-growth azaleas, camellias and other plants to beautify the property. Over the years, the couple hired architect George B. Rogers to design the Gardens and the Home. In the spring of 1932, the Bellingraths invited the public to come to their fishing camp to enjoy the azaleas, and a crowd of 4,700 arrived. Stunned by the response, the couple decided to open the Gardens permanently, while charging a fee to assist in their care and upkeep.
Bessie died in 1943, and Walter died in 1955. Mr. Bellingrath had established the Bellingrath–Morse Foundation in 1950 to operate the Gardens and Home; the Home was opened to the public in 1956.
When Hurricane Frederic struck, the combination of high winds and falling trees crushed hundreds of the azaleas and camellias that Bessie and George B. Rogers had planted in the 1920s and 1930s. At least two tornadoes swept through the Gardens during the storm, downing close to 3,000 trees. Mirror Lake was filled with debris and had to be dredged.
The Camellia Arboretum, which had been created in 1958, was essentially wiped out — a loss of 2,000 plants representing 750 varieties. The Camellia Arboretum had been planted beneath a pine forest, and these trees snapped and fell on the camellias. What camellias survived faced a new problem: They had been thriving in partial shade, but were now in full sun, and suffered additional damage from the sudden increase in sunlight. The portion of the Gardens that included the Arboretum was permanently closed after Hurricane Frederic.
The irrigation system was destroyed. At least nine greenhouses were damaged beyond repair, and another seven were extensively damaged. The financial losses included $8,000 worth of poinsettias in the greenhouses. George Downing, chairman of the Bellingrath–Morse Foundation, estimated that the final cost would be $9 million to $10 million — $4 million for the Gardens and $3 million to $6 million to repair the Home.
The direct hit transformed Bellingrath Gardens from a heavily shaded garden into a much more open landscape. Sections of the Gardens that were once decorated with shade-loving plants were now more suited for sun-loving flowers and shrubs. Staffers drew up a 12-point plan of action to give the Gardens a new look.
Many residents of Mobile and Baldwin counties donated large azaleas and camellias for the restoration. Sidney Meadows of Flowerwood Nursery assisted in getting hollies, camellias, cleyera and other plants. Help came from as far away as Rhodes College in Memphis (one of three colleges that benefit from the Bellingrath–Morse Foundation), where members of the Sigma Nu fraternity helped dig and transport camellias from a local garden in order to transplant them to Bellingrath.
According to information from the Bellingrath–Morse Foundation, the staff replanted 15,000 azaleas, 4,500 pine trees, more than 100 live oaks and “hundreds of specimen camellias, hollies, gardenias and other plants.”
All in all, it took work crews four months to remove the damaged trees and shrubs, and another two months to do additional cleanup and partial replanting. The Gardens managers had realized it would be at least another year before all the new azaleas were in place and the pruned, surviving azaleas bloomed again. In the Rose Garden, staffers dug up an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 bushes, defoliated and trimmed them, and refrigerated them to preserve them for future replanting. The Gardens reopened on the target date, March 1, 1980.
In the decades since Frederic, the tree canopy has returned, and Bellingrath Gardens is now largely a shade garden again. There are, of course, many sunny spots, which allow for the colorful flower beds that visitors admire today: The Rose Garden, the Great Lawn and the Gazebo Garden.
Gardening Events for Your Calendar
What: Mobile Botanical Gardens Fall Plant Sale
When: Oct. 18 – 20
Where: Mobile Botanical Gardens, 51 Museum Drive, Mobile
Contact: email@example.com or 251-342-0555, ext. 2
What: Boo! at Bellingrath
When: Saturday, Oct. 26, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
What: 56th Annual Fall Outdoor Cascading Chrysanthemums
When: November 2019
Where: 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore
Cost: Visit bellingrath.org for more info
What: Alabama Master Gardener State Conference
When: March 30 – April 1, 2020
Current Activity: Inviting sponsors and donors to participate
Contact: AMGA2020Mobile@gmail.com for information about sponsorships and donations for the conference.
Master Gardener Helpline: 877-252-4769, or send your gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).