The Gardens of Charleston

By: Katie McElveen

May 21, 2014

Charleston has been described as a city set in a garden, and it’s easy to see why. No matter the season, greenery and flowers envelop Charleston in a lovely mix of artful design and haphazard beauty. Branches from twisty live-oak trees drape themselves over sidewalks and roadways, rosemary bushes add scent to hidden corners and languid vines wind their way over courtyard walls, offering the tiniest glimpses of the gardens that lie within. Here are a few of our favourite gardens of Charleston, both within and outside of the city proper.

Caladiums | The Gardens of Charleston

Caladiums add colour to the live oak alley at Brookgreen Gardens © Brookgreen Gardens

Look for the showiest displays – azaleas, dogwoods, and wisteria – in the early spring months of March and April. For a peek into many of the city’s top private gardens, plan your visit during the city’s annual Festival of Houses and Gardens, which is commonly held between March and April.

White Point Garden | The Gardens of Charleston

Civil War munitions at White Point Gardens © Charleston Parks Conservancy

Charlestonians often joke that their city’s two great rivers, the Cooper and the Ashley, form the Atlantic Ocean. Gain a sense of how this theory began with a visit to the Battery and adjacent White Point Gardens. Located at the tip of Charleston’s peninsula, the spaces offer a clear view across Charleston Harbor to Fort Sumter and, in the distance, the Atlantic Ocean. With its simple design of shell-covered footpaths, live oak trees and turf, White Point Gardens is all about the history of its surroundings. Civil War canons, statues to Confederate troops and cannon ball pyramids tell the story of a city trapped in a war zone while the Battery’s graceful mansions are a reminder of gentler times.

Russell House Garden | The Gardens of Charleston

Nathaniel Russell House is built on a rare double lot © Nathaniel Russell House

Visitors flock to Nathaniel Russell’s 1808 manse to marvel at the flying three-story staircase, but it’s the garden that wins rave reviews – particularly during the summer months when the oversized ginger lilies fill the air with their heavenly scent. Also of note are the Colonial-revival collection of rare Noisette roses, which were created in the 1700’s to be able to survive Charleston’s hot, humid summers; heirloom herbs grown from seeds gathered at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia; and a pair of majestic 100-year old magnolia trees. Throughout the garden, formal beds offer a counterpoint to rambling vines of Confederate jasmine and scarlet runner beans.

The Gardens of Charleston | Russell House Garden

Spring show at Nathaniel Russell House © Nathaniel Russell House

America’s oldest and largest public garden lies an hour or so outside of Charleston in the fishing village of Murrell’s Inlet. Once the winter home of industrialist Archer Huntington and his wife, artist Anna Hyatt Huntington, the 9,000-acre property is best known for its fountain and sculpture-filled garden rooms, where works by artists such as Frederic Remington and Carl Milles (1,400 in all by 350 artists) sit amid seasonal drifts of colour, elegant alleys of oak and magnolia and quiet ponds. There are also activities for children, a butterfly house, nature trails, plantation ruins, a Civil War fort, tours through abandoned rice fields and evening concerts.

Calhoun Fountain | The Gardens of Charleston

One of the water features at Calhoun Mansion © Calhoun Mansion

Calhoun Mansion, the largest privately-owned home in Charleston, is also home to one of the most elaborate gardens of Charleston. Beyond a few azaleas and camellias, the formal garden is done almost entirely in green, highlighting the power of design as well as a good pair of hedge clippers. Perfectly-manicured borders of boxwood surround planting areas set with trees, ball-shaped boxwoods, fountains and sculptures; on the north side of the home, magnolias and palms form the centrepiece of another garden room bound on one side by a brick wall. And don’t miss the elegant Japanese water garden.

The Gardens of Charleston | Phillip Simmons Garden

Philip Simmons Garden © Steve Lepre of Sunhead Projects with permission from the Philip Simmons Foundation, Inc.

Beyond blacksmith Philip Simmons’ intricate Heart Gates at St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church, topiary master Pearl Fryar repeated the heart motif to create a swirling wonderland in green in the Phillip Simmons garden. Throughout the walled space, trees carved into lush serpentines, sharp triangles and perfect spheres show that nature can, in fact, be improved upon. The opening in the west wall was cut at the request of the neighbours, who wanted to watch the garden as it was being constructed. Philip Simmons named the iron sculpture that fills the space Peninsula; in it, among other elements, you’ll find the rooftops of two Charleston single houses and fish swimming upstream.

Pictureque corner of Mepkin Abbey| The Gardens of Charleston

One of Mepkin Abbey’s two cemeteries © Mepkin Abbey

Filled with remarkable light, the gardens at Mepkin Abbey, a monastery in the aptly named town of Moncks Corner, seem almost ethereal. A lane of live oak trees lead to a flower-filled labyrinth and, just beyond a meadow of native plants, the formal gardens. Designed by landscape architect Loutrell Briggs, the terraced gardens feature camellias and azaleas shaded by mature hardwoods. Members of the Luce family, including Claire Boothe and Time, Inc. founder Henry Luce, are buried at the high point of the garden. Plan to arrive around 11:30 so you can explore the garden after observing the monks’ noon prayers, which include traditional haunting chants.

Cypress Gardens | The Gardens of Charleston

Azaleas surround a blackwater swamp at Cypress Gardens © Cypress Gardens

Bring your camera when you visit Cypress Gardens. That’s because you’ll find yourself looking again and again at the photos of the water within the blackwater swamp, which is so still and dark that it creates a perfect mirror image of the tupelo and cypress trees that thrive there. Originally a rice plantation – the old wooden fence-like structures were used to control water flow – the area was transformed into a garden in 1927. More than three miles of walking trails lead through extensive land and water-based gardens filled with roses, water lilies, honeysuckle, iris and rare spider lilies.

Magnolia Cemetary | The Gardens of Charleston

Fall colour at Magnolia Cemetery © Magnolia Cemetery

Landscape designer Edward C. Jones created the plan for Magnolia Cemetery, which is as well known for its unique and symbolic statuary as it is for its natural beauty. Bootleggers, artists, governors and children all share the 92-acre park-like cemetery, which opened in 1849. Throughout the space, boxwoods, azaleas, palmettos and live oaks are interspersed with gravesites, separated by intricate ironwork, while eagles, hawks and falcons circle above two large lagoons bordered by delicate pampas grass.

Middleton Plantation and Magnolia Plantation & Gardens are also known for their gardens, for more information, see our article on Charleston’s Historic Plantation Homes.

The Gardens of Charleston | Cypress Gardens

Look for alligators and turtles at Cypress Gardens © Cypress Gardens

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Have you visited any of the gardens of Charleston? Which was your favourite? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Katie McElveen


Katie McElveen

Travel writer Katie McElveen’s love of exploration began when she was 17 and driving from her home in Maryland to South Carolina for a family vacation. A wrong turn put her in unfamiliar territory and an overheated engine extended her stay longer than she’d planned, but the adventure left her wondering what was around every turn. Katie has shared her discoveries through her work in magazines such as Real Simple, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Southern Living, Modern Bride, Tennis and Business Traveler.

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