Story by Carol Stigger
Photos courtesy of Brookgreen Gardens and Carol Stigger
Nights of 1000 candles
Centuries-old live oaks draped with Spanish moss line the winding road to Brookgreen Gardens. The foliage announces that we are in South Carolina’s Low Country. Live oaks and their wispy shawls of moss command the scene throughout Brookgreen’s nearly 1,000 acres. The botanical gardens are a lush setting for a collection of American sculptures. Nearly 100 years ago, the grounds become the first public sculpture garden in America when four adjoining 1700s plantations were purchased by Archer Milton Huntington.
Today, the Gardens has 2,000 figurative works by more than 400 artists and hosted the 89th National Sculpture Society’s Annual Awards Exhibition in 2022. Three indoor galleries close to the welcome center and a sculpture garden provide an easy walk for visitors who want to focus mainly on the sculpture or are seeking shelter on inclement days.
Wildlife Caged and Running Free
The zoo houses birds and animals native to the Low Country as well as wild creatures that make the 1,000 acres their home. A docent invites visitors to join her in feeding the animals at 1 every afternoon. After exploring the outdoor zoo, more birds and animals – including alligators – can be seen from a pontoon boat.
This Creek Excursion goes through historic rice paddies and inlets while a naturalist narrates the history of the plantations and rice planting and harvesting. He points out creatures easily missed by untrained eyes. Three alligators lazed along the creek, and I learned how to estimate the length of an alligator. Take the number of inches from snout to eyes, then change the inches to feet. All the alligators were longer than I am tall but looked bored by the passing pontoon boat full of potential entrees taking photos.
For more fauna before I focused on the flora, I visited Whispering Wings Butterfly Experience (open May through September). As an amateur photographer, I found photographing butterflies as fanciful as catching stardust on my tongue. Chicago-based photographer Lee Balgemann, said, “Butterflies are as flighty toddlers on a teeter-totter.” In the lush, tropical garden, queen butterflies teased with their bright, orange wings, but my only photo success was a dusty monarch.
Blooming All Year
At the welcome center, tables display a labelled pot of each flower in bloom that day. Docents are happy to show visitors on a map where they can find a particular bloom. Spring arrivies in mid-February with crocuses and daffodils rising from scatters of dead leaves. Among unusual blooms to discover are fragrant olive bushes and Chinese ground orchids. By March, the Gardens is exuberant with three varieties of azaleas, every imaginable rose, and flowering dogwood. Southern magnolias scent the air in summer, more roses burst into bloom, and hibiscus and hydrangeas are everywhere. As leaves thin in autumn, chrysanthemums, lilies, and sasanqua camellias add spots of color to the greenery. Tall, Mexican giant cigar plants resemble the tobacco product in shape only. The “cigars” are pleasing shades of peach and yellow.
The Sobering Side of the Gardens
Brookgreen Plantation was America's largest violator of human rights having more than 1,100 enslaved people before the Civil War. The Gardens’ philosophy is to document history, even the evil eras, so they will not be repeated. Excavations are uncovering quarters and cemeteries of enslaved people, cook sheds and other outbuildings as well as numerous artifacts. Some parts of Brookgreen Gardens are a sobering reminder that “this really happened and we must not allow it again.”
A Holiday Extravaganza of Lights
One of the most beloved holiday events in the Southeast is Brookgreen Gardens’ Nights of a Thousand Candles. Candles cast a soft glow on garden paths and float on pools. Millions of sparkling lights form breath-taking displays. Strolling carollers and musicians fill the air with holiday music.
In the exhibit hall, decorated trees are centerpieces of life-size holiday dioramas; the latest features Harry Potter and Hogwarts. Cups of warm cider and plates of hot, Southern specialties such as BBQ and chicken bog make the event a supper occasion as well. The light show lasts from 3 p.m to 10 p.m. making supper a welcome and refreshing stop. The ceremonial lighting of an 80-foot-tall fir tree decorated with 70,000 lights commences at the announced time each evening.
It’s no surprise that Travel+Leisure Magazine named this the “Best Christmas Lights in South Carolina.” It runs from the Saturday after Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day. Tickets must be purchased in advance so this popular event is not overcrowded.
Bring Home a Memory
The Gardens’ gift shop, Keepsakes, has unique items crafted by local artists. The shop is filled with tastefully displayed one-of-a-kind jewellery, pottery, and art including fabric art. The large selection of books for adults and children is chosen to add to visitors’ appreciation of the area and the plants and animals on the grounds. The just-released coffee table book Brookgreen 101 by Robin R. Salmon is a beautifully photographed and rich history of the Gardens. The author is Vice President of Art & Historical Collections/Curator of Sculpture and has worked for Brookgreen Gardens for nearly 50 years.
Look for bags of Carolina Gold Rice. This is the rice grown on plantations in the region and became virtually extinct during the Depression. The first seeds were imported from Madagascar in the late 1600s and became the main rice sold in the U.S. until the early 1900s. The rice was reintroduced to the Carolinas in the 1980s. Charleston chef Sean Brock calls the heirloom grain "the most flavorful rice I have ever tasted." A serving of Carolina Gold rice is a forkful of history.
If You Go
General Admission is for $20 ($18 for seniors) and is good for seven consecutive days. An annual membership is $70 for unlimited visits. A few experiences cost extra such as Nights of 1,000 Candles and escorted excursions.
Parking is free; picnicking is encouraged. Three dining venues serve Southern favorites such as Southern Dip, Cabana Pimento Grilled Cheese, and the best Fried Green Tomato BLT I have ever tasted.
Wheelchairs are available. A free trolley runs from parking lot to the visitors center and to exhibits that are a challenging distance for people with mobility problems and parents of tired children.
For more information, visit https://www.brookgreen.org
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