Whether it’s a collection of classic American sculpture or a terrace full of historic plants cultivated with 18th-century techniques, the gardens of North Carolina and South Carolina have something special.
Temperate climates and a surrounding sense of natural beauty inspire the gardeners of the Carolinas, and the long, rich history of the region gives them a variety of interesting places to plant their passions. At public botanical gardens throughout both states, teams of horticulturists work together to create spaces full of nature’s beauty and man’s creativity.
In South Carolina, Middleton Place has preserved centuries-old gardening techniques, and Brookgreen Gardens uses its outdoor space to display more than 1,000 works of art.
Fruits, herbs, flowers and more grow along the water at Cape Fear Botanical Garden in North Carolina, and Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens near Charlotte, N.C., is an oasis of orchids and fountains on a former dairy farm.
Many people know Middleton Place as one of Charleston’s beautiful historic plantations. Although the historic house on the site is worth touring, the 18th-century terraced gardens are an attraction in themselves.
“It really strikes me how the Middletons created this wonderful marriage between exotic plants and native plants,” said Sidney Frazier, vice president of horticulture at Middleton Place. “It must have been a master plan. I think Henry Middleton must have had an eye for it when he started in 1741. Every time you turn a corner or walk down a pathway, there’s some kind of a surprise.”
Set behind the home on the banks of the Ashley River, the gardens are broken up into “rooms,” which are planted with different themes. An informal area, with azaleas and other native trees, borders the central formal garden.
A rose garden features 18th-century plants, and the sunken garden, octagonal garden, secret garden and mirror garden each feature an unusual mixture of annual and perennial flowers.
Guests touring the plantation will also find a number of ponds and water features, but they won’t find modern chemicals and pesticides being used on the plants.
“In the early days, all of the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were not available,” Frazier said. “So we decided to turn back the clock and use other ways to care for the garden. We’ve started running on an organic program, and we use copper as our primary fungicide. That’s what they did in the 18th century, and the air was cleaner and the water was better.”
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Long before it was a popular tourist destination, the area around Myrtle Beach was ideal for rice cultivation. Today, Brookgreen Gardens stands on the site of four former rice plantations, with 500 acres of cultivated lands and more than 8,000 acres of wildlife and history preserves.
“The thing that makes us unique from most gardens is the fact that we have one of the most significant collections of sculpture by American artists in the entire world,” said Helen Benso, vice president for marketing at the gardens. “We have over 1,200 works that span from the early 1800s to the present.”
Visitors will find the sculptures placed alongside flowerbeds and other botanical displays that change with the seasons. Spring brings dogwoods, azaleas and roses, along with blooming cherry trees. Summer and fall feature heartier plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds, while evergreens, saucer magnolias and winter jasmine shine in the cold-weather stillness.
In addition to seeing the plants and the artwork, groups visiting Brookgreen Gardens can spend time at the onsite Lowcountry Zoo or take an expedition into the wildlife preserve.
“We have excursions into areas of the wildlife preserve that aren’t normally available to the public,” Benso said. “One is a creek excursion, where we take people on a pontoon boat down large tributary creeks of the Waccamaw River. There’s an interpreter that comes along and talks about the history of the rice fields, the enslaved Africans who created those fields and the current ecology.”
Cape Fear Botanical Gardens
Cape Fear Botanical Gardens takes advantage of its riverside location to give guests an experience molded by man and nature together.
“We’re nestled between the Cape Fear River and Cross Creek, just two miles away from downtown Fayetteville,” said Paige Ross, director of development and marketing at the gardens. “We have 2,000 varieties of ornamental plants and about two miles of walking trails by the river.”
The garden features hundreds of camellias, day lilies, hostas and antique roses, as well as several species of cedar and other conifer trees.
A heritage garden grows food crops such as figs, pears, pomegranates, corn and peanuts, along with other typical southern vegetables. The water-wise garden shows visitors how to use rain barrels and other techniques to grow plants with less energy and water use.
Next spring, the garden will open a new 33,000-square-foot pavilion, with a visitors center, gift shop and an orangery, which is an indoor area with live fruit trees.
“Another really exciting addition to the garden will be the butterfly stroll behind the new building,” Ross said. ”It’s going to feature more than 100 different varieties of plants that attract butterflies. It will lead through a vine-covered tunnel trellis and to a deck and a cypress pond.”
The butterfly stroll will open next summer.
Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden
In 1991, Daniel Stowe set aside 380 acres of dairy farmland near Charlotte for the establishment of a botanical garden. The gardens opened to the public in 1999 and features local and exotic plants.
“We lean more toward being a display garden,” said director of marketing Jim Hoffman. “We have a cottage garden, which is your classical southern garden with largely southern plants. And we have a canal garden, which is largely tropical, with things like palm trees and banana trees. It’s called the canal garden because it has a 100-year-old canal running through it.”
In addition to several other outdoor displays, the garden features a glass orchid conservatory that opened in 2008. Gardeners maintain some 5,000 orchids, which can be seen year-round in the glasshouse. The conservatory also houses rooms for succulents, which grow in arid environments, and tropical plants that thrive in warm, humid climates.
Exotic plants are integrated into the architecture in certain parts of the orchid conservatory.
“One of the spectacular things is a series of four arches covered with tillandsia, an air plant,” said Hoffman. “We have 14,000 growing on a series of four arches. It’s very dramatic. Air plants are interesting, because they get all of their nutrients from the air and the water they grow in.”
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