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A botanical tour of the state
Patrick McMillan, director of the South Carolina Botanical Garden, says its new Natural Heritage Garden makes this site "something that really represents South Carolina."
Photo by Andrew Haworth
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Mountains to coast
The trail wends through forests and across bridges over mountain streams, emerging into coastal plains with granite outcrops and native plants, and ending in a coastal habitat.
Photo by Andrew Haworth
“You know what the problem with the South Carolina Botanical Garden is?”
Seemed like everyone who approached Patrick McMillan had an opinion on this topic when he became director of Clemson’s SCBG in 2010. But one particular Charleston gardener nailed the answer.
“She said the problem is that it doesn’t represent South Carolina,” McMillan says.
“I really took it to heart. It changed and directed everything that I’ve done with the garden since then.”
Until that point, the SCBG, begun in 1958, had been used mainly as a pleasure park—a lovely public garden with a popular duck pond and some fine plant collections. But McMillan wasn’t interested in overseeing an outdoor museum of pretty plants. To truly fulfill its mission as the state’s botanical garden, everything on its 295 acres should tell a story about South Carolina’s history, culture, geography, climate or people, McMillan realized.
Today, the garden’s newly completed focal point is its 64-acre Natural Heritage Garden, a half-mile-long walking trail that takes visitors on a botanical tour of South Carolina, from the mountains to the coast.
“It’s unique among any botanical gardens anywhere in the world in scope, size and application,” McMillan says. “We just happen to be at the perfect location to really grow and represent all the natural communities in South Carolina.”
What makes this garden special is that it’s not simply growing plants from different parts of South Carolina. McMillan, his staff and Clemson students constructed entire natural habitats to recreate each region of the state.
The maritime forest exhibit, for example, is a miniature ecosystem filled with plants the earliest European settlers in our state would have encountered along the coast, such as live oaks, sabal palmettos, sweetgrass and yaupon hollies, McMillan says. And each one tells a piece of South Carolina’s story, like the palmettos that protected Fort Moultrie and the sweetgrass baskets famous in the state’s Gullah culture.
Crews brought in rocks to recreate the granite outcrops found around Lancaster County, soil from the sandhills to create a piedmont exhibit, and hundreds of species of native plants to transform the upper end of the trail into a wild mountain meadow you’d find in a natural Appalachian cove forest.
Built into the trail are structures that reinforce the illusion that you are traveling through the state’s varied geographic regions—bridges over mountain streams, a boardwalk through the dunes along a coastal plain.
“That’s really what makes it special. When you look back, it doesn’t look like a garden. It looks like a walk in nature,” McMillan says.
The Natural Heritage Garden was still in the early stages of its development when a devastating 2013 flood, brought on by heavy rains, sent 93 million gallons of water roaring through the property, destroying those first improvements.
“At the time, I thought, ‘This is the worst thing that’s ever happened,’ but it turned out to be the best thing,” McMillan says. Restoration efforts included projects to redirect water flow to protect against future flooding, as well as new designs to draw visitors into the Natural Heritage Garden through a welcome gate near the pond. When they come to feed the ducks, visitors will find the first steps onto a mountain trail that opens onto a piedmont plain and leads them right down to a Native American shell ring at the coast.
After walking across the state, there’s still more to see. The SCBG boasts the largest outdoor desert garden in the eastern U.S.; a hosta garden with nearly 400 species; the thriving old camellia garden where the Botanical Garden got its start; and, soon to come, a brand-new children’s garden with a canopy walk through the treetops, a botanical maze and a water garden among its kid-friendly features.
“We are here to provide, really, that connection to the outdoors for people,” McMillan says. “Above all, this is an inviting place.”
The South Carolina Botanical Garden is located at 150 Discovery Lane, Clemson.
HOURS: Gardens are open from dawn to dusk daily. The Fran Hanson Discovery Center (visitors center), Fuller Art Galleries and Bob Campbell Geology Museum are open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Buildings are closed during home football games, university holidays, July 4 and during the last two weeks of December.
DETAILS: For information on group visits or guided tours or for other details, visit clemson.edu/scbg or call (864) 656-3405.