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    published 7-30-2020

    There are many interesting historical and natural attraction located just a few miles off the interstate; one is a fantastic botanical garden just ten miles from the exit on Interstate 85, halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte. It is Clemson University’s South Carolina Botanical Garden, which is much more than the standard botanical garden. All the traditional plant-focused things are there, but a lot more, like a special natural heritage trail that allows the visitor to transect the natural plant habitats of the state in just a half-mile. After “walking across the state,” you can see the largest outdoor desert in the eastern United States, a hosta garden with nearly 400 species, and a thriving camellia garden where the botanical garden got its start. Plus, almost all of it is out-of-doors and all the out-of-doors attractions are open during the pandemic.

    A Focal Point of the Garden

    About ten years ago the botanical garden was transformed from a collection of plants to something broader that represented the state’s “history, culture, geography, climate, or people.”  The focal point of that transformation is the 64-acre Natural Heritage Garden, a half-mile walking tour that includes the major natural habitats you’d encounter if your walked from South Carolina’s coast to its mountains.

    Rather than growing plants from different part of the state, the garden is a series of mini-ecosystems or complete natural habitats. If you start at the coast with the maritime forest, for example, you’ll walk through the same habitat that the earliest European settlers confronted, including live oaks, sabal palmettos, sweetgrass, and yaupon hollies. The idea is to tell the South Carolina story, including palmettos that protected Fort Moultrie or sweetgrass used to make the Gullah baskets sold in the Charleston markets.

    As you enter the Nature Heritage Trail you’ll see the plants you’d expect right at the coast, including the state tree.

    The habitats were created by moving material from various parts of the state to the garden: rocks from granite outcrops in Lancaster County, soil from the sandhills to recreate the piedmont, and hundreds of native plants used to create the mountain meadow in the Appalachian cove forest. Structures are built into the trails to give the illusion you are traveling across the state, like bridges over mountain steams or a boardwalk through coastal sand dunes.

    The trail begins with the Maritime Forest, including palmettos.

    The Natural Heritage Garden Trail can be accessed from both the foothills and coastal ends. Starting from the coastal end, the main features on the trail include:

    Portion of Native American Shell Ring.

    The trail begins where sea meets the coast, the maritime forest on South Carolina’s sea islands, with palmetto trees and lives oaks with hanging Spanish moss. Near the coast you might also find rare Native American shell rings or middens (mounds). These are 4,000-5,000 years old and were constructed with massive amounts of oyster shells. They can be huge, up to 200 feet in diameter and impact the nearby plant distribution. Oyster shells contain calcium carbonate, which like lime makes the soil basic, allowing trees such as sugar maple and basswood to grow “out of place.” You’ll see part of a shell ring on the trail and even a coastal bog near the maritime forest. Just inland along the Atlantic Coast, mainly in the Carolinas and Georgia, are Carolina bays, elliptical depressions mostly oriented in a northwest-southeast direction. These are isolated wetlands that are threatened as development and agriculture claim them. Large ones can be several thousand acres in size. Most are much smaller than that and there is a small one on the trail. At one spot is a collection of carnivorous or insectivorous plants, like sundews, pitcher plants, and Venus flytraps.


    What you’d expect in moist areas of the lower coastal plain, some carnivorous plants.

    Moving further inland, you’ll see the longleaf pine savanna, originally a major forest type of the coastal plain. It requires a fire ecology (frequent burning), is highly diverse, and that diversity includes lots of wildflowers. This forest was a major source of lumber and naval stores. Naval stores were produced from longleaf pine resin, like turpentine. Tar and pitch products were used to seal wooden ships, hence the name.

    Longleaf Pine on the sandhills.

    Along the trail is a streamhead pocosin. Pocosin is a Native American term for “swamp-on-a hill.” Unlike the nearby sandhills and savanna forests, the pocosin soil is deep, nutrient poor, and acidic. They support evergreen plants such as holly, sweetbay, magnolia, and loblolly bay.

    Granite outcropping where the Piedmont starts.

    When the sandhills transition to the Piedmont, there are rocks. Granite comes to the surface. Wide expanses of granite outcrops create mesic or very dry conditions and plants with desert-like adaptions appear. At one time huge herds of bison and elk grazed on a grassland in the Piedmont of South Carolina. The trail has a ten-acre patch of Piedmont prairie, along with prairie wildflowers.


    A streamhead pocosin, the beginnings of a wetlands.

    A Piedmont prairie, all that is needed are some bison.
    A small Carolina bay.

     The trail leads towards the foothills and an oak-hickory forest appears. Things cool off as you move from the prairie to the thick sheltering forests. The oak-hickory forest in the Upstate of South Carolina is a relatively new natural succession, which resulted when fire suppression on the prairie and savanna created by Native American fires decreased, allowing for a new forest. There are plenty of signs of squirrels in this forest, as this is one of their favorite habitats.

    The oak-hickory forest.
    The basic mesic forest.

    Next on the trail is a basic mesic forest (mesic means moderate amounts of water). It is a rarer forest of the Piedmont, appearing on fire-sheltered slopes along major rivers. Finally, there is the cove forest, representing the southern Appalachians. This is the forest you’d find in the nearby Jocassee Gorge. The cove forest is a small part of South Carolina, but one with some of its plant greatest biodiversity.

    The cove forest. 


    Rest of the Garden

    Flower display garden.

    Most people would have started with the more traditional botanical garden features, like the multitude of demonstration gardens on the property. These are not small display areas; they are widely dispersed across the garden; and most require long sub-paths off the main path, as they are integrated into the landscape. Included is a hosta garden, camellia garden, wildlife habitat garden, xeriscape garden, picnic garden, dwarf conifer garden, hydrangea garden, perennial garden, and a desert garden.

    Desert garden.
    Dwarf conifer garden.
    Xeriscape garden.

    The trail system is high quality and well-maintained, with many trails being hard-surfaced. Beautiful streams weave through the garden and there are small ponds (including a duck pond, where you can feed ducks and geese).




    typical path in the garden.


    The garden has more than plants. Two historical houses are on the property. The Hanover House was built in 1716 and was moved to the garden from South Carolina’s Lowcountry. It is listed on the National Register of National Places. The second house is the Hunt Cabin, built in 1826, and moved to the garden from an adjacent county.

    Hunt Cabin, one of two historic homes on the Garden. 

    The garden is kid-friendly, and there are some kid-focused attractions like a caboose near the main parking lot. There is a visitor’s center and a geology museum. The museum has an extensive collection of gems, minerals, and fossils of the region, and includes an elaborate fluorescent mineral display room and has the only saber-toothed cat exhibit in the Southeast.

    A caboose located near the parking lot, one of many attractions that will interest the kids.

    One of the largest collections of nature-based sculptures in the country, built only with natural materials, such as stone and plant material, is displayed across the garden. The sculptures are scattered across the property and must be discovered while walking the trails.  


    The “Crucible,” one of the nature-based sculptures, located on the cove forest end of the nature heritage trail.


    You can easily spend a day at the garden. There are gems hidden throughout the 295 acres, like a 70-acre arboretum and those nature-based sculptures you have to discover. It is very family friendly, with a planned children’s garden, including a canopy walk through the treetops, a botanical maze, and a water garden among its kid-friendly features. An earlier article in this Ezine featured another great attraction only two miles away: John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantationpan>. So, it is possible to get a dose of regular history and natural history all in the same day at nearly the same location, and have a lot of fun too. 


    Author: Thomas J. Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University. He has a keen interest in political and natural history.


    For additional information:

    About South Carolina Botanical Garden


    Natural Heritage Garden Trail







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