From the mysterious Carolina Bays in the Coastal Plains to the temperate rain forests of the Jocassee Gorges, South Carolina's diverse ecosystems offer visitors the opportunity to see an amazing array of plant species that call these habitats home.
Among the strangest is the insect-eating Venus flytrap. One of the few places this carnivorous oddity grows in the wild is in the wet, boggy soil surrounding Carolina Bays. The elliptical depressions, spread across South Carolina's Coastal Plains, are an enigma themselves with no scientific explanation of their origins.
At the other end of the state, you'll find the Oconee bell, one of the rarest wildflowers in the world. Almost all of the Oconee bells on the planet are found in the remote forested wilderness of the Jocassee Gorges.
You can see both of these unique plants at the South Carolina Botanical Garden, a 295-acre living museum of cultivated landscapes and natural woodlands featuring ponds, streams, nature trails and a dazzling collection of specialty gardens.
The state's designated botanical garden, it has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1958 as a small camellia preserve on the Clemson University campus. Today, it includes the Fran Hanson Visitor's Center, the Bob Campbell Geology Museum, an internationally acclaimed nature-based sculpture collection, a 19th century log cabin, the Nature Learning Center and the historic Hanover House, the second oldest wooden structure in South Carolina.
But it's the demonstration gardens that are the horticultural highlight of this Upstate attraction. An extensive network of paved paths and nature trails winds through reproductions of South Carolina habitats where you can see plants native to the barrier islands on the coast, the savannas and prairies of the Midlands and the mountain forests in the Upstate.
The Hilliard Carnivorous Exhibit features samples of the 25 species of insectivorous plants native to the Carolinas, including sundews, pitcher plants and the curious Venus flytrap. The Oconee bells can be found in the Woodland Wildflower Garden.
Other specialty gardens feature camellias, hostas, hydrangeas, perennials and dwarf conifers. There is also a Xeriscape Garden, Piedmont Prairie Exhibit, Longleaf Pine Savannah, Children's Garden and Greenhouse, Maritime Forest, Meditation Garden, Hortitherapy Garden, Wildlife Habitat Garden, Flower Display Garden and a 70-acre arboretum.
One of the most ambitious works in progress is the Carolina Bay Exhibit being created from a small, leaky retention pond that has a similar elliptical shape and the same NW-SE orientation as the natural depressions found in the Coastal Plains. The changing water level caused by the leak even mimics the ecosystem of a Carolina Bay.
Walking along the trails, you'll also come across several of the garden's nature-based sculptures, part of a collection touted as one of the largest of its kind in the country. The ephemeral works of art were designed onsite by international artists.
One of the most recognized sculptures in the collection is the "Crucible." The dome-shaped rock structure was built over a natural spring, which feeds the stream that runs alongside the piece. You can find it along the Belser Nature Trail.
The South Carolina Botanical Garden is open daily from dusk to dawn. Admission is free. The Visitors Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.