| Wilmington StarNews
WILMINGTON – When the N.C. Azalea Festival returns in 2021, it will be without one of its defining attractions.
The Cape Fear Garden Club announced Monday it has canceled the 2021 Azalea Garden Tour, a key component of the perennial festival since 1953 that enlists area residents to open up their immaculately manicured gardens to the public during the spring event. The 2020 festival was previously canceled earlier this year, marking the first time it didn’t happen in its more than 70-year history.
Sherry O’Daniell, the 2020-21 president of the Cape Fear Garden Club, released a statement Monday confirming the tour would be back in 2022. But she cited the ongoing concerns around the pandemic as the reason for the cancellation more than five months before the festival would even begin.
“On the surface, this early cancelation may seem to be premature, but the annual garden tour is a compilation of the work of 24 club committees,” O’Daniell wrote in a statement with club spokeswoman Barbara Downing. “These committees start working two years in advance of a given tour. Plus, the committee work doesn’t even begin to cover the time and effort put forth by the garden owners.”
The news comes a month after news broke that the club, which is separate from the festival organization, voted to end its 50-year-old Azalea Belles program, which saw area high school seniors adorn each tour’s selected gardens and festival events in colorful antebellum-style dresses. The sight of the dresses had long been an iconic image of the festival, but some found them to be insensitive as they invoked the slave-owning history of the South.
The club has said it will institute an ambassador program in the place of the Belles program in the future.
It should be noted the cancellation of the garden tour does not mean the festival itself has been canceled.
O’Daniel confirmed Monday the club made this decision entirely on its own and did not consult the festival. She also said the recent Belles decision, which was voted on by members this summer, also did not have any bearing on the cancellation.
“This has to do with the pandemic and keeping our club members, garden owners and guests safe,” she said.
In response to the decision, N.C. Azalea Festival executive director Alison Baringer English confirmed the festival is still on track to happen April 7-11, 2021, but was less definitive on what the club’s decision meant for the festival.
“Azalea Festival staff and volunteers are busy planning and fundraising for the events that we have control over,” she wrote in an email to the StarNews.
The festival has also yet to comment on the end of the Azalea Belles and what it means for the annual events moving forward.
The annual garden tour is a larger cornerstone of the festival than its weekend of tours. The ribbon-cutting ceremony at the start of the weekend of events has been a key opening salvo for the festival and historically featured the more than 100 Azalea Belles, and appearances from festival celebrities and the Azalea Queen, who cuts the ribbon.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony is also known to be a favorite of sweettooths as club members bake thousands of cookies to be given away as guests mingle in their spring-colored attire and fascinators.
“We will miss enjoying the 3,600 beautiful cookies prepared by our 400 club members, the ribbon-cutting ceremony by the lovely Azalea Queen, and the many colored gorgeous blooming azaleas, but we will survive to be here for the 2022 Azalea Garden Tour,” O’Daniell said. “We look forward to the spring of 2022 and celebrating with our community, club members and patrons of our garden tour in ‘Post-Pandemic’ style.”
Additionally, O’Daniell noted that the proceeds from the tour have been an essential of the club’s mission to give back to the community. Between 2003-2019, the club has given away $1,209,718.94 to non-profit organizations for grants in education, conservation and beautification, according to O’Daniell. The tour proceeds have also funded standing grants and scholarships to North Carolina Audubon Society, Cape Fear Community College and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com.