There’s no denying South Carolina’s tourist appeal, from Charleston’s vibrant charm to Hilton Head’s laid-back luxury. And of course the state’s robust history of plantations is no secret. What tends to be lesser known, however, is what happened to these properties over the centuries. Several have been transformed into some of the most beautiful public gardens across America, filled with rich history and mature flora. When you’re looking to stray from the beaten path and soak up both education and inspiration, here are three standout green spaces worthy of your attention.
As its name suggests, Mepkin Abbey is a Trappist monastery located north of Charleston on the Cooper River. When Henry and Clare Boothe Luce donated this land to the Roman Catholic Church in 1949, they had already established a rich architectural and botanical legacy ripe for cultivation. Today, the gardens are cared for by monks who live and work on the grounds for life. Their diligent efforts have preserved what visitors see today: sweeping lawns and meadows with dominant live oaks, structures and sites chronicling Mepkin Abbey’s long history.
Nestled in the scenic town of Sumter, just outside Columbia, Swan Lake Iris Gardens is the only public park in the nation to feature all eight species of swan. The 150-acre property boasts a lake, colorful islands, abundant wildlife and some of the most expansive plantings of Japanese irises. Azaleas, camellias, daylilies and magnolias also grow in abundance here. Among the amenities are a unique Braille Trail that allows the sight-impaired to enjoy the gardens as well as plentiful paths that let walkers and runners get lost amidst the flora and fauna.
Situated along South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, Brookgreen Gardens is home to the most comprehensive collection of American figurative sculptures in the country. Included in the price of admission is access to the gardens for an entire week — that’s how much there is to see and do here. Amplifying the beauty of the natural landscape, the sculpture collection showcases more than 2,000 works from 430 artists. Brookgreen also has a Lowcountry zoo highlighting endemic animals such as owls, otters, alligators and the like.