Outstanding architecture, restaurants, gardens, and a rich cultural history — Charleston offers it all in abundance. On the rare occasions we get to visit there, we head downtown, park the car, and walk the Battery and side streets until feet and backs say “no more”.
Even on a cold, winter day, Charleston is a feast for the senses. Always tuned into plants and gardens, I gravitate toward the private courtyard spaces, peeking through delicately-filigreed gates and fences wherever I can.
I’m fascinated by the toughness of street trees, crammed within sidewalks into tiny rectangles of soil. Crape myrtles are prevalent here, but there are plenty of live oaks, as well. They’ve all survived decades of car emissions, extremes in weather, and foot traffic across their roots.
It’s hard to imagine a tree with more site adaptability than these tree-form crape myrtles. Many of the ones downtown appear to be ‘Natchez’, an excellent cross of two species that was developed by the U.S. Arboretum. ‘Natchez’ is more mildew-resistant and cold hardy than most older, shrub-form varieties. Fortunately, those in charge of downtown pruning have rejected the increasingly-common practice of topping crape myrtles and turning them into summer-blooming lollipops.
Of course, there’s always an exception.
The cemeteries of Charleston are rich in plant variety and texture. Camellias (C. sasanqua, most likely) were in bloom a few weeks ago, but may now have succumbed to the ice and record low temperatures of the past few days. It felt a little intrusive to walk the paths threading between weather-worn tombstones of people who died so many years — even centuries — ago.
Palmettos (Sabal palmetto) are an iconic tree in Charleston and the state tree of South Carolina.The fronds are used by local crafters to make baskets and “rose” bouquets. At this park beside the Cooper River, palmettos form a backdrop to a sign that amuses tourists, advising them there is no lifeguard stationed at the pineapple-topped fountain.
We saw plenty of evergreen plants, including creeping fig vine (Ficus pumila) and Podocarpus, a conifer called yew pine. Here, these plants nearly obscure walls surrounding this secluded entryway and garden.
Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) is an evergreen shrub that grows in many gardens here. It’s not hardy in my area, so I took time to enjoy the gorgeous white flowers, glowing in front of a richly-patterned, textured wall.
Live oaks (Quercus virginiana) are a cherished part of the history and charm of Charleston. They, too, seem to thrive in narrow strips of soil along the street. Such a regal,beautiful tree.
The massive, splendid specimens of southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, look happy and completely at home in the Charleston landscape.
One courtyard had the native eastern dogwood, Cornus florida . It’s very common in southern Appalachia — not so much in the deep south.
Many gardens visible from side streets had dwarf boxwood hedges — Buxus x ‘ Suffruticosa’, I would imagine. These boxwoods work well in small gardens where the constraints of straight-lined driveways, iron fences, and houses call for more geometric, formal design. The appearance of perennials and flowering shrubs would enhance these boxwoods come springtime. Yes…. springtime… I think I must (have to) go back and see the transformation!