Winter Walk: Charleston’s Leafy Appeal

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Of course, there’s always an exception.

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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.

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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.

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We saw plenty of evergreen plants, including creeping fig vine (Ficupumila) and Podocarpus, a conifer called yew pine. Here, these plants nearly obscure walls surrounding this secluded entryway and garden.

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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.

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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.

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The massive, splendid specimens of southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, look happy and completely at home in the Charleston landscape.

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One courtyard had the native eastern dogwood, Cornus florida . It’s very common in southern Appalachia — not so much in the deep south.

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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!

Winter Light! Charleston, S.C.

Despite appearances/time between posts, I am not snowed in with Gardenopoly at the home place in Asheville. Instead, I’ve been holding off a bit, waiting to write about a recent visit to my favorite southern city, Charleston, South Carolina. With so much of the U.S. immersed in extreme, snowy weather, it just didn’t seem right to ramble on about a wonderful, balmy place in another part of the country.

But now things are thawing in most places, and I figured some posts about the Charleston/Kiawah area would be appropriate — maybe remind us that spring is not so far away.

Soon I’ll write about the gardens and sights of Charleston, but for now I want to show three photos of the glorious landscapes we saw.

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It’s hard to know where to look first: the sky above the Cooper River, the reflections on the water near the pier, the sparkling water in the fountain, or the gradations of light on the stone. All so beautiful at dusk.

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The interplay of light on the sides of old houses, brick-lined driveways, leaves, and tree trunks is striking this time of year. There are so many courtyards like this throughout the historic parts of downtown Charleston — every one is a vignette of its own.

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Yes, a sunset is a sunset and pictures of them abound. This sunset, watched from the Battery, was spectacular, I have to say.

Next time: Roses on the Pier