White Point wonders

For all the beauty and mystique of Charleston' famed floral sites, there is nothing quite as simply sublime as the aura of White Point Garden. This 6.5 acre area offers an interesting contrast of statuesque oaks trees and banks of azaleas, mingled among an array of historic guns and military monuments. This southern tip of Charleston's peninsula was mostly mud flat and sand bar in the colonial period, named for the oyster shells that bleached white at low tide. It was here that scores of pirates met an ignominious end on gallows meant to warn other offenders not to trouble Charleston from the sea, and fortifications were built to protect the city from incoming vessels. In 1834, the city dredged up harbor bottom to fill in the area as a public park, and a bath house was erected and bands played for a public eager to enjoy the cooling breezes and waters. In its early years, the park's soft grass and relaxing atmosphere were not for all to stretch their legs, however, and in 1853, turnstiles were erected and an ordinance issued prohibiting "cows, mules, horses and inebriates". Civil War turned the garden into a fortress again, with earthworks and guns replacing benches and flowers. So far from the blockading fleet outside the harbor, the White Point guns were sparsely used, and the most famous blast was from a cannon blown up by evacuating Confederates in 1865 that scattered one large piece into an East Battery Street attic where it lies today. Following the war, new trees were planted and the garden again became a popular gathering place, and after hurricanes damaged the bath house, it was removed and a central band stand built, where performers played regularly into the 1920's. Guns made a comeback too, but this time only for show. The accumulating arsenal included artillery from Fort Sumter, sea coast mortars, Revolutionary War guns, howitzers and rapid-fire guns, and the famous Keokuk gun, which had been retrieved from a sunken Union ironclad in 1863 and used by the Confederates. Nowadays, the big guns are irresistible to children who enjoy climbing, while parents wander the park reading inscriptions on eye-catching monuments dedicated to various defenders of the city from long ago. The old band stand has been fully restored and is now a popular location for outdoor weddings. From any of its benches or walking paths, people can view sailboats and ships passing in the harbor, getting a much more peaceful, pleasant reception in White Point Garden today.

The English Garden

Formal gardens are a long-time tradition in historic downtown Charleston, and for many years, blooming plants were the major attraction for tourists. The idea blossomed in the mid-18th century, as the increasing wealth of the city allowed for more leisure time and more money to spend on it. The hugely-profitable exports of timber, indigo and rice paid for larger homes that proliferated throughout the city from the 1720’s through the 1770’s, typically built on long, narrow lots where there was limited space between them.

What those lot areas did provide, however, was enough room to create a flourishing buffer that enhanced the beauty of the residence and allowed its owners a view of tranquility and relaxation beyond living room windows. Gardening was an art like any other, and dating back to old England, had a large number of skilled professionals who combined botanical knowledge with artistic concepts to make memorable greenspaces.
The “English garden” became synonymous with the concept of an outdoor area planted with symmetrical precision, complete with varieties of growths offering varieties of shapes, colors and scents. To add to the concept that entering the garden was a step into a separate, mesmerizing world, spaces were compartmentalized as distinguishable “rooms”, each entered along curving paths or through winding hedges, and featuring fountains or statuary.
 What was fashionable in England found an ever-expanding audience in the prosperous province of South Carolina, and gardeners advertised their skills in the newspapers and periodicals of Charleston. Just as iron smiths, cabinet makers, an stone carvers immigrated to play their trade, so too many garden experts came to ply their trade in South Carolina’s inviting subtropical climate and healthy soil.
What stood so brilliantly beside many houses for years suffered after the Civil War, when a blighted economy made gardening a low priority. But overgrown spaces and weed-filled walks experienced a Renaissance beginning in the 1930’s, as Charleston’s Emily Whaley teamed up with relocating New York landscape architect Loutrell Briggs. By re-emphasizing the appeal of small, formal spaces next to homes with tantalizing combinations of layout and flora, the two helped Charleston reclaim its traditional position as a gardening Mecca, and today our downtown gardens are some of the most mesmerizing in the world.    

Hurricane Lillies

Gentle fall showers have sprung to life one of Charleston most distinctive perennials, the Lycoris Radiata, better knon as the Hurricane or Red Spider Lilly. The member of the Amaryllis family grows to about 18 inches in height, with bright red flowers and curved reddish stalks that resemble the legs of a spider.

 Like so many Charleston flowers, it is a native of Asia, intoruduced by colonial botanists who found that our temperatae subtropical climate was ideal for exotic plants and trees. The bulb of the Lycoris Radiate lies dormant until late September, when it sprouts majestically in places such as historic St. Michael's churchyard, addding a delicate border to weathered gravestones that date to the 18th century. 

  The color of the flowering extremities lasts only a matter of days before it turns to a leafy green, and the bright red color was considered by some to be a signal of stormy hurricane weather. Fortunately, the continental high pressure systems of 2010 have made hurrican season virtually non-existent, as it has been for several decades, and the warning reds will fade into a soothing green along with milder fall temperatures that typify the delightful October season in Charleston 


 With so many blooms and colors permeating the Charleston landscape each year, the city's historic area is a veritable garden in itself. Yet although Charleston is famous for its azaleas, camellias, gardenias. oleanders, pittosporum, Confederate jasmine, lugustrum, four o'clocks, hydrangeas, and cherokee roses, all are non-native species, brought to this subtropical climate as experiements by botanists. Fortunately, we do have plenty of native flowering species as well, including redbud, bignonia, magnolia, dogwood and syringa.

 The peak blooming season is early March through May, and sweet fragrances fill the air along with the buzzing of  honey bees, who are so delirious with loads of nectar that you can actually pet them as they probe flower petals – and don't worry, they rarely sting unless you threaten a hive.  

gardens galore

People frequently ask me what gardens I recommend in Charleston, and my reponse is usually, "just wander the streets of the historic district". There are many wonderful "peek-a-boo" gardens in small spaces beside and behind homes on the peninsula that are worth strolling by. Among the best areas is Church Street south of the intersection with Tradd, where gateways and driveways often open to manicured plots of blooms and greenery. Residents are obviously very proud of these gardens, and welcome views from the street, but please be respectful of privacy and enjoy the gardens from the sidewalk. As plantation gardens, Magnolia Plantation Gardens would be my pick. The main gardens were created from colonial rice fields, and feature sparkling ponds with arched pedestrian bridges surrounded by flora and fauna. Magnolia also offers walks through its Audubon Swamp Garden, with paths taking visitors through the stunning beauty of indigenous cypress swamp.