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SC Botanical Garden

Ecosystems of the Natural Heritage Garden

Natural Heritage Garden

natural heritage trail and sign with Hanover houseImagine a place where, in an hour or two, you can walk onto the barrier islands of South Carolina, wander through incredibly diverse longleaf pine savannas, explore 5,000 year old shell rings and Piedmont granite flatrocks and pass hundreds of carnivorous plants. Travel back in time 300 years to visit a remnant of the vast savannas and prairies that dotted the Midlands and Upstate and then continue into the cool ravines of the Jocassee Gorges. All of this is possible at the Natural Heritage Garden in the South Carolina Botanical Garden.

Maritime Forest

raised boardwalk weaving through underbrush and palm treesThe Garden begins where the history of modern South Carolina begins, the place that Europeans first met upon landing here. A stroll through the entrance of the Garden takes the visitor to the edge of South Carolina, beneath palmettos and large, tranquil live oaks festooned with Spanish Moss. Perhaps no other habitat is so intimately tied to our history. From the state tree, the palmetto, to the beloved sweetgrass that gained fame in the exquisite baskets of Gullah culture, to sea oats that bind our shores against erosion, this endangered habitat has the power to both educate and inspire. 

Native American Shell Ring

recycled oyster shells lining a landscape of palms and shrubbery When you think of Charleston County, you probably do not think about Sugar Maples. They do live there, but only on Native American Shell Middens. People built these amazing structures during the Late Archaic period. Some Shell Middens are well over 5,000 years old and rank among the largest man-made structures of their time period in the New World. The fact that these rings and mounds are constructed out of shell means that they continue to have a profound impact on Lowcountry ecology. Shell contains calcium carbonate, which is like lime in that it raises the pH of the soil. The Lowcountry soil is notoriously acidic, and sites like this provide a unique niche for life that cannot be found elsewhere. Here you will find sugar maple, as well as basswood, rough-leaf dogwood, redbud, small-flowered buckthorn, Godfrey’s swamp privet, leafless swallowwort and even trillium – all growing on the outer edge of the salt marsh!

Carolina Bay

recycled oyster shells lining a landscape of palms and shrubbery When the first pilots flew over the Coastal Plains of Georgia and the Carolinas, they were shocked to notice a seemingly endless number of elliptical depressions dotting the landscape, all oriented in the same direction as though something from outer space created them. These unusual formations are Carolina Bays, and their origin is a great scientific mystery.

The Carolina Bay ecosystem is threatened and a focus for conservation. As agriculture made its impact on the coastal plain, farmers learned that the Bays had good soil properties for crop cultivation, and many were subsequently drained and cleared. In addition, they are not protected under the Clean Water Act because they are isolated wetlands and not part of the country’s freshwater resources.

Longleaf Pine Savanna

wildflowers and small pine trees in a grassy meadowLongleaf pine habitats are noted for their extreme levels of diversity. In fact, longleaf pine savannas contain even more diversity on small spatial scales than tropical rainforests. The plants of these habitats have adapted to a long history of fire and often low fertility, with the result being the striking, colorful and frequently bizarre forms we see today. These habitats are the only places in the world where many fantastic plants, including the Venus Flytrap, can be found. Today, less than 10% of the original extent of longleaf pine remains in the Southeast, though at one time it was the dominant feature of our Coastal Plain. Our garden provides a critical tool in the education about these places and the processes that maintain them - FIRE. 

Carnivorous Plants

carnivorous plantsAlmost everyone is familiar with the Venus flytrap – a plant so strange that it prompted Charles Darwin to say it was the most wonderful plant on Earth. But did you know that the only place it grows naturally is in the Carolinas? From sundews to pitcher plants, there are over 25 species of carnivorous plants native to the Carolinas. There is a living exhibit of these wondrous plants in The Natural Heritage Garden. This outdoor classroom teaches visitors how these plants have adapted to poor soil conditions and are able to trap their own supplemental "fertilizer" in the form of insects.


raised walkway over a water feature lined with small plantsThe word Pocosin comes from an Algonquian word meaning “swamp-on-a-hill." These shrubby wetland habitats stand in stark contrast to their Sandhill and Savanna neighbors. They also have different soil – deep peat soils that are highly acidic. Many evergreen landscape plants are native to this habitat, including Inkberry holly, sweetbay magnolia and loblolly bay.

In The Natural Heritage Garden, we exhibit an example of a streamhead pocosin plant community found in the Sandhills region. This portion of the Garden acts as a screen that divides the Coastal Plain from the Sandhills. Visitors walk through a tunnel of evergreen shrubs as they reach the "Fall Line" and enter the Sandhills exhibit. 


white sand and dry soil with scattered small plants and shrubsThis is the meeting point of the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont. Sandhills are found across the state, roughly from Aiken through Columbia and up through Chesterfield. The Sandhills mark the sand dunes and former coastline of the prehistoric Atlantic Ocean. There is no hotter, drier place in the Carolinas, and many of the plants found here would be well-adapted to grow in deserts. But not all of this region is dry - streams rush forth from the base of these hills and hold wondrous shows of carnivorous plants such as pitcher plants and sundews. The Sandhills are a treasure few venture into but that everyone should experience. 

Granite Outcrop

bright yellow and purple flowers around large rocksThe transition from the Sandhills to the Piedmont is marked by one very predominant feature – rocks! Granite to be specific. Granite comes to the surface in many areas of the Piedmont. Each expanse of granite provides a unique island of open, droughty conditions that have allowed plants with desert-like adaptations to find a home amidst the dense woodlands and forests.

These rocks bake with near boiling heat at their surface in the summer. However, during the winter and through the spring, when temperatures are cool, water pools on the rocks' surfaces and flows through small crevices along their faces. Life has found a way to thrive here with species such as prickly pear cactus and desert-adapted ferns, like the woolly lip fern, and spikemoss, which can lose almost all of its water and then spring back to life, giving it the name “resurrection moss.”

Piedmont Prairie

grassy walkway through tall grassesEnormous herds of Bison and Elk being pursued by wolves across a sea of flowing grasses as high as a man’s head, punctuated by the brilliant yellow and pink of sunflowers and coneflowers stretching to the horizon. Though you might think we are talking about Oklahoma, this was South Carolina. The Piedmont Prairie is brought back to life through an expansive 10-acre exhibit here in the Natural Heritage Garden in a “revitalized” Kelly Meadow.

Few of us realize that what we think of as natural today was not a part of the Piedmont that the Pre-Columbian inhabitants or 18th century South Carolinians knew. This is a land that has been molded by the hand of man, from the fire that gave birth to the prairies, to the farming practices that eroded our rich topsoil and left us with the characteristic red clay, to the lack of fire on abandoned cotton fields that has left us with forests of pine, oak and hickory. All of it bears the mark of the hand of man. The Piedmont gives us one of the most powerful stories of the connections and legacies of our decisions.

Oak Hickory Forest

gravel walkway under large oak tree shade,  lined with small stoneWho would guess that what most of us consider “natural” - the oak-hickory-pine dominated forests of the Piedmont uplands, are a rather recent phenomenon and one that has man’s handiwork written all over it? It is safe to say that our colonial ancestors would not recognize this place. The reason: fire suppression! The Upstate was once a mosaic of prairie and savanna managed by the cultural fire regime of the Native Americans. Only relatively small pockets of Oak-Hickory forest were able to exist due to natural protection from fire, such as steep bluffs and rocky slopes. The canopy is made up of moisture-loving trees, such as American Beech, Northern Red Oak and Tulip Tree. 

Basic Mesic Forest

bridge with rails over small water way in the forestOn steep, fire-sheltered slopes along our major rivers in the Piedmont is a true relict of the past - forests that were marooned here following the end of the last Ice Age. The Basic Mesic Forest is perhaps one of the rarest communities in the Piedmont of South Carolina. It shelters many endangered species, and there’s probably no showier place to visit in the spring. If you’ve ever had your soil tested, then you know that the soils in the Upstate are generally considered acid - below 5.5 pH. The basic mesic community has pH levels above 6.3, which is very uncommon. The reason: marble, amphibolite and limestone rocks rich in calcium and magnesium. The Mesic community is home to a rich herbaceous plant layer including Shooting Stars, Miccosukee Gooseberry, Lance- leaved Trillium, Faded Trillium, Dutchman’s Breeches and American Ginseng. All of these plants have their roots in the mountains and far to the north; however, they moved south during colder times and today have found a niche on the rich, steep, north-facing slopes at places like Stevens Creek Heritage Preserve in McCormick County.

Cove Forest

shaded crushed shell walkway through large shrubs and treesThough they occupy such a small portion of the landmass of South Carolina, our humid gorges and sheltered coves hold a disproportionately large number of our rare species and have been a refuge of life through change for millennia. The cove forests of the southern Appalachians harbor more species of trees than all of northern Europe and over 4,000 species of vascular plants. This makes our backyard a biodiversity hotspot. Our hills, the southern Blue Ridge escarpment, host more species of Trillium, Wild Ginger and Salamanders than any other similar-sized patch of ground. These forests are home to tropical ferns found growing beneath Yellow Birch, more typical of Canada. The humid gorges, high rainfall, diverse geology and elevation range create the magic to make such combinations possible.

Stroll through a piece of Jocassee Valley that was transported to the South Carolina Botanical Garden, from what is now Lake Jocassee, back in the 1960s and discover for yourself what André Michaux found there nearly 250 years ago – the legendary Oconee Bell. Or stroll further through the vibrant colors of a cove brimming with trillium and other spring wildflowers growing in rich, neutral soils such as we find in Eastatoe Valley. The collection of plants found here is the finest exhibit of its kind, a laboratory for research, an outdoor classroom, and an inspiring nook for all to enjoy.