At first glance, downtown Aiken looks like so many other small Southern towns with its beautiful historic buildings and charming gardens. But lining the quiet streets of this All American City is one of the most diverse collections of trees found in any municipal landscape.
The variety of species is so extensive, a four-mile radius of downtown Aiken has been deemed a citywide arboretum. Many of the trees were planted in the city's parks and parkways by the owners of a rare plant mail order nursery that opened more than 30 years ago in an old house off Colleton Avenue. Over the years, the collection has been expanded to include more than 150 trees on city streets and in Hopeland Gardens, Rye Patch Estate and H. Odell Weeks Activities Center.
With Aiken's mild climate, adequate rainfall and variety of soil types and habitats, the trees have grown and flourished, enhancing the city's downtown neighborhoods with a magnificent arboreal canopy.
Nowhere is the botanical treasure more spectacular than along Colleton Avenue. A seven-block section of the street has been turned into the Aiken Arboretum Trail. It features more than 100 trees, including 11 species of oak, five different pines, a variety of cedars, hollies and magnolias and Southern classics like dogwood, crepe myrtle and pecan.
An interactive self-guided tour has been developed, offering interesting facts about each tree on the one-mile trail. Using a mobile cellular device, you simply call the number posted on the plaque below each tree and enter the tree's specific number. The plaque also includes the common and scientific names of the species.
The tour begins adjacent to the parking lot of the Aiken County Public Library at 314 Chesterfield St. A brochure box labeled "Aiken Visitor Maps" contains cards with general information about the trail.
First on the tour is a Round Lobed Sweetgum, discovered in 1930 in Cameron, NC. Unlike most of its species, it features round rather than pointed lobes on its star-shaped leaves and none of the pesky, prickly "gumball" fruits that give the tree its name. A few steps away is the Oconee Dwarf Sweetgum, a freak form of the common sweetgum tree.
No. 2 on the trail is a Portuguese cypress, not commonly seen in the area. Native to Mexico, it was introduced into Portugal about 1600. What sets this tree apart is its beautiful bark.
A little farther along the parkway you'll come to the iconic live oak, dripping with Spanish moss. You'll learn on the interactive tour that the tree's dense, strong wood was used to build ships and the tannins from its bark were used by Native Americans to dye leather.
As you walk the trail, you'll also have the opportunity to admire the stately private residences on the wide avenue. At Marion Street, the trail turns back, crossing over itself several times along the parkway before ending at a winged elm, a shade tree with a fibrous bark once used to make rope to tie up cotton bales.
For more information on Aiken and the arboretum trail, go to www.VisitAikenSC.com or call 803.293.7846.