This summer my wife and daughter had their turn picking our family vacation spot. Lowcountry is a cultural and geographic region along South Carolina’s coast, an adventure taking us from Charleston to Savannah, with an interim stop in Hilton Head. An area, inclusive of the Sea Islands, known for its breathtaking salt marshes and coastal waterways. Landscapes littered with a disproportionate number of behemoth trees, in my opinion, the South has their Crapemyrtle, Southern Magnolia, Flowering Dogwood, Red Maples, Eastern Redcedar, Sago Palm, Baldcypress and of course… those magnificent Live Oaks! Almost always clothed with the epiphyte Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides, a nonparasitic plant supported by another plant with aerial roots exposed to humidity. Spanish moss also goes by Long Moss, Black Moss, and Vegetable Horsehair.
Make no mistake, while my wife and daughter scheduled most of our trip, they graciously afforded me time alone to gawk, visit and hug several of the Southern verdure. Charleston, South Carolina, our initial city, was “sensory overload” for most things horticulture. Able to plan one day just for me, I took advantage of the opportunity and filled the hours with a swamp tour, a massive oak, and an even older oak. Up at the crack of dawn, Moncks Corner and the Cypress Gardens was my first stop. A 180-acre botanical treat, complete with 4.5 miles of walking paths, nature trails, an 80-acre open blackwater swamp and its very own Swamparium. Navigating my own boat, with oar in hand, my hopes of gliding between century old Baldcypress, Taxodium distichum and Water Tupelo trees, Nyssa aquatica, did not disappoint. Swamps are forests that are flooded for all, or part of the year and these two tree types not only tolerate, but thrive in saturated, low oxygen level soils. This man-made swamp is strewn with other semi-aquatic gems like Sweetbay Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, Swamp Dogwood, Cornus foemina (stricta), American Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, Dwarf Palmetto, Sabal minor and Eastern Redcedar, Juniperus virginiana. All native and commonly associated tree types, most I identified on higher ground. “The distinctive dark and highly reflective water of a blackwater swamp owes its color to the tannins leaching out of the accumulated dead leaves and twigs (peat) on the bottom” (Cypress Gardens). Meandering thru the swamp, ever cognizant of the small, white directional arrows, I happened across one small alligator and on the shoreline spotted a Carolina Anole, a Great Blue Heron, and an Egret. Finally, those magnificent “Cypress Knees”, woody projections extending from the submerged root system of Baldcypress, were ever-present. Important to note here, the “knees” are not necessary for gaseous exchange, so the question remains for this author… are they solely there for support?
A quick one-hour drive from Cypress Gardens is Angel Oak Park, John’s Island, and the famous Angel Oak Tree. Estimates vary from 300-500 years old, standing over 65 feet tall with a 28 ft. circumference, this Live oak, Quercus virginiana produces shade that covers a staggering 17,200 square feet. From tip to tip, Angel Oak’s longest branch distance is 187 feet. While some debate that the actual age of this tree is around 1,500 years old, most accept the more conservative estimate. Always a top 10 destination for those visiting the Charleston area, “plant geeks” alike would put this well before Rainbow Row, Ghost & Graveyard Tours and even Fort Sumter. “A Lowcountry Treasure,” the Angel Oak may be the largest of its kind in Lowcountry, however, it’s not the oldest Live Oak I saw!
Middleton Place, “once the home of Founding Fathers, Statesman and Diplomats, is today a vibrant enduring historic site that illustrates the complex history of our nation” (Middleton Place). America’s Oldest Landscaped Gardens, today’s 125 acres began in 1741, is a National Historic Landmark, complete with their House Museum and working Plantation Stableyards. Gardens showcasing Crapemyrtle, Camellia, Tea Olive, floral allées, terraced lawns, sunken gardens and a pair of ornamental lakes shaped like butterfly wings. Held to an extremely tight timeframe, I was greeted at the front entrance by a delightful woman, Dalia. Thoroughly understanding my time constraints and addressing my ambitions, Dalia pointed me in the right direction, not sure I would accomplish all that I set out for. After all, 125 acres in two hours is ambitious, but I did have my running sneakers on… and I used them! The Middleton Place map has 33 points of interest and I found them all. And while I admit, wanting to see this plantation for its history and landscaping was important to me, I ran by so much so quickly. However, two points of interest that stopped me literally in my tracks was the Butterfly Lakes, sitting beneath the “Reine des Fleurs” and the Middleton Oak. Butterfly Lakes was molded by the vision of Henry Middleton and its layers run down the hillside and end at a curvature on the Ashley River. Geometric design so precise you can see the influence of formal French and English garden styles. The Butterfly topography reminded me of work done, in today’s age, by Kim Wilke, a British landscape architect known for his ability to “Sculpt the Land.” A subject I wrote about for this periodical April 2014. And if this wasn’t enough, the Middleton Oak really is the “tree of trees.” A behemoth of the arboriculture world, this Live Oak, Quercus virginiana is nearly 1,000 years old. The circumference of this tree is 37 feet and was named a “Constitution Bicentennial Tree” in 1989 (1 of 61 named). An impressive oak spared by storms, earthquakes, shipbuilders ambitions, garden construction and time, this tree is said to be an Indian Trail Marker long before Columbus sailed the Atlantic. Imagine what this tree has seen? The American Revolution, the Civil War and the evolution of said property just to name a few.
In closing, the South is littered with trophy trees, draped in Spanish Moss, adding to their mystique. The history and landscape of Lowcountry is certainly something to behold. And truer words were never spoken… “To exist as a nation, to prosper as a state, and to live as a people, we must have trees” (Theodore Roosevelt). All this, and I’m not even out of Charleston yet.