A magical oasis awaits on the edge of Clemson that will transport you to the Chisos Mountains of West Texas, the mystical shell rings of the Carolina coast, even the foreign fossils of the Cretaceous period.  The South Carolina Botanical Garden is open every day, sunrise to sunset, with walking trails that provide the perfect outdoor adventure. “Every day out here is different,” shares plant collection manager Trent Miller. “We have incredible, localized species that might not occur anywhere else in the world. You can walk in the same place and still see things differently hour by hour.”

This month, snowdrops should be blooming at the entrance of the Xeriscape Garden, with multiple varieties of rosemary bursting just beyond. But the unobtrusive allure of walking the garden in winter involves the off-season debut of intricate textures and mottled tones that typically hide behind the colorful petals of summer. The view of the horizon during solstice has become stark, bold, and captivating. “This is my favorite time of year at the garden,” reveals Trent. “It’s a subdued beauty that makes me happier, because I get to experience it when most people are not looking for it. Look at the show of those wild rice plants. Those inflorescences? It’s crazy to me. The structure of the plants is just so interesting.”


The Botanical Garden took root at Clemson University in the 1950s as a humble collection of camellias on a small parcel of land beside John C. Calhoun’s nineteenth-century Fort Hill estate. Today’s blossom unfolds to reveal a 295-acre interdisciplinary resource of outreach, awareness, and teaching of plants, animals, minerals, and culture. The site was designated as the state’s botanical garden in 1992 and, under the guidance of longtime director and Emmy-winning PBS host Dr. Patrick McMillan, grew into a haven for flora and fauna. McMillan recently relocated to the West Coast, but only after leaving the natural site in hands that learned to till the soil at his side. Today, the Camellia Garden features more than 300 varieties, while thousands of species of native and non-native plants pepper cultivated landscapes and natural woodlands that include a Celtic Garden, Aquatic Garden, Jurassic Garden, and two dozen others. 


In less than an hour, visitors can walk across South Carolina, from the barrier islands of the coast, to the cool ravines of Jocassee Gorges. Yet most take their time meandering the trail through the granite flatrocks of the Piedmont, the sweetgrass of the Lowcountry, and the pine-scented hideaways of the inner coastal region. TheNatural Heritage Garden holds the most comprehensive collection of native plants in a public garden in the Southeast. “The garden features thousands of species from each habitat,” clarifies Allison Kelly, the Natural Heritage Garden manager. “The trail takes you from the Maritimes at the coast, and you work your way diagonally up the state through the Sandhills, all the way to the Blue Ridge Escarpment. The garden is never static.”  

As she leans over to trim overgrowth, Allison figures she’s been working here since 2017-“ish,” when she gave up teaching music for studying plants. “Just seeing how the plants evolve through time—you get to know it more intimately in the winter. My favorite thing is the sound of the grass crackling as it moves and the birds looking for refuge in the longleaf pines. I just enjoy seeing how things change every single day.”

With ten distinct areas, this, the center’s main attraction, features glimpses of the region’s past and present. The Piedmont Prairie looks as it did when bison, elk, and wolves roamed freely on rich, black topsoil, before human hands stripped it to red clay. The Carnivorous Display includes examples of bug-eating plants indigenous to the Carolinas—blood-sucking sundews, pitcher plants, and Venus flytraps. Further down the trail, the Cove Habitats and Mountain Bog include the legendary Oconee Bell, within a secluded hillside forest, providing the perfect spot for tranquil contemplation. 


Smaller in size than the Heritage Garden, but far more menacing in appearance, the Desert Garden’s spiked cacti and pointy agaves the size of VW bugs dot the hillside landscape in this horticultural marvel. “This time of year, some plants turn a kind of Barney purple,” divulges Trent, as he pushes aside a gnarled frond from the path. “There’s a nice contrast between the spines and the color of the pads depending on the species, and they look even more fierce than usual.”  

Hairy stems and stout thorns point in every direction in this surreal landscape, just below the Visitor’s Center. Celtis pallida, Acaciella angustissima. Long Latin names drip from Trent’s tongue as he strolls along, introducing the plants as if they were his children. But in a way, they are. He is part of the crew that has nurtured this seven-year-old garden into the largest collection of Southwestern plants at any botanical garden east of Texas. “We have lots of varieties of agave, yuccas, and prickly pear,” he admits. “We do have six native species of cactus here in South Carolina. You can go down to Edisto and find a pretty rare Opuntia tunoidea. A lot of our cactus came over from the Caribbean in hurricanes. Prickly pear is frequently on the coast, but we do have a kind that is at Table Rock, too.” 

While visitors are encouraged to touch, feel, and smell plants, this is one area where caution is advised. Trent takes in the beauty with his eyes. “Oh, this looks like frost when the sun catches it,” he says, pointing to a thin stalk. “In the summertime, this plant produces really showy flowers, but I find in winter time, it’s just a different kind of showy.” A show not to be missed. 

Photography by Paul Mehaffey. Entrance to the South Carolina Botanical Garden is free. Public programs and access to the Visitor’s Center have been reduced due to COVID-19. Check the website for future events: clemson.edu/public/scbg