Explore the South Carolina Botanical Garden with a self-described plant nerd, and you’ll hear a lot of Latin classifications flow from Dr. Patrick McMillan’s lips as easily as honey from the bees buzzing about the bright, spring blooms. Clemson University considered shutting down the state garden during the Recession but gave the plant-loving professor a shot at rejuvenating the grounds. In less time than it takes a magnolia to mature, the botanist renovated the once-ignored “pleasure park” into a landmark series of habitats, becoming the second biggest draw at Clemson, after football. Simultaneously, McMillan picked up six Emmy Awards hosting and writing Expeditions with Patrick McMillan on ETV. Today, the 47-year-old professional naturalist transports us back in time, inside the garden’s newest addition.
You’ve been busy. >> Welcome to our Jurassic Garden. It’s one of our new exhibits opening this spring. People can walk into habitats with plants from groups of plants that existed during the Mesozoic Era. We’re standing in the Triassic section, which is 200 million years ago, or so. Here we’ll have horsetails, cycads, and a few conifers that are really strange, and fossils from that period. Over there, we’ll have the giant rib cage of a supersaurus.
You build several additions each year? >> Yes. One of the coolest in the last couple of years has been the Chihuahuan Desert Garden. It features 100 species of agave and more than 600 species from the American Southwest, with spring-blooming ephemerals, sages, thornscrub, mesquite trees. It’s an immersive experience, like you’re walking through a trail in the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park in West Texas.
The Botanical Garden is gaining a great reputation. >> Engagement, that’s what we’re all about. We want to engage people educationally and a lot of times we do that by tricking them into having a pretty place to go. The most unique thing we do, and what sets us apart from any garden, anywhere, is the Natural Heritage Garden.
Show us please. >> It has a half-mile-long trail, and you can walk through all the major ecosystems of South Carolina. There are a lot of botanical gardens that illustrate coastal plants and mountain plants, but what we’ve done is bring the entire ecosystem in with rock type, soil type, and the hydrology-system processes, even fire. It’s a lot harder to duplicate nature, something that’s semi-natural, than to just plant something in a row.
The Heritage Garden was your dream when you started in 2010. >> It’s been wonderful to see this place transformed from literally mowed Bermuda grass and trees into a garden that is everywhere, bringing life. We set ourselves apart from other gardens, maybe all gardens, by the way we manage the property with far less chemical management and far more tolerance of pests. Our philosophy is that we are a garden for life.
What kind of wildlife do you see now? >> We’ve seen a huge shift in species since we changed our management. Our garden has 207 species of birds. We see fly-overs with eagles, Peregrine falcons, bobolinks. Red-shouldered hawks breed in the garden, great-horned owls are now here, and our population of small mammals includes rabbits, skunks, raccoons, and cotton rats that look like guinea pigs.
What can folks learn here to use in their own yards? >> We want to empower people to know how important they are and how every choice we make has a reverberating impact that is going to last forever. Two big things: plant plants that support our native pollinators. Milkweed. Mountain mints. Jacob Cline. Our bees and pollinators are in serious trouble. Don’t use chemicals that kill pollinators. Next, reduce the amount of irrigated yard you have by using things that tolerate the climate vagaries we’re subject to nowadays. An average yard over the summer might use 30,000 gallons watering the landscape.
How long will you keep doing this? >> Until I retire. I have eight to nine years left, and before I’m out of here, I want to see it be a place that puts South Carolina on the map as the new Garden State. We are the model, at least in the South nowadays, at what a habitat garden can be, and what impact they can have on our wildlife. With the Natural Heritage Garden, and the Chihuahuan Desert Garden, and renovations to the Children’s Garden, this place is an oasis.
Dr. Patrick McMillan, of Clemson University and PBS’s award-winning Expeditions with Patrick McMillan, has transformed the South Carolina Botanical Garden into an oasis of plant life. To see what’s growing and explore upcoming events and learning opportunities, check out clemson.edu/public/scbg/.