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Swan Lake Iris Gardens Showcases Spring Beauty

Kerry Egan Kerry Egan
A real-life Swan Lake awaits visitors at Swan Lake Iris Gardens in Sumter.

If "lovely" and "swamp" aren't words you normally put together, you probably haven't visited Swan Lake;

no, not the famous magical ballet, but a real-life Swan Lake right here in South Carolina.

Swan Lake Iris Gardens, in Sumter, is perhaps the most beautiful mistake in all of South Carolina. In 1927, a frustrated gardener named Hamilton Carr Bland dumped all of the iris plants that he'd purchased for his landscape project into some swampy land he owned. He was frustrated that the irises wouldn't bloom at his home. Imagine how shocked he must have been when they burst into color around the black water of the cypress swamps the next May.

His frustration delights people to this day when the garden blooms in a riot of irises. There are thousands - maybe millions of blooms - in one of the largest displays of irises in the country.

And the irises are just one of many flowers that light up the spring landscape. Azaleas, magnolias and daylilies fill the 150-acre garden, which was donated to the city of Sumter. There's even a Camellia Island.

But Iris Garden is only half of the name, of course. The garden is also home to all eight species of swans in the world. The fairy-tale swans we all envision are there, but so are black swans, with bright red beaks, the elegant black-necked swans and the Whooper Swans, whose strange, haunting cry can be heard as you wander the grounds.

The garden is a wonder-filled place to wander for a day. When we visited, a black swan, at first barely visible against the black water, glided toward us as graceful as any ballerina. She seemed to gaze at us for one long moment, before silently disappearing beneath the boardwalk that carried us through this haunting, lovely cypress swamp.

My kids were happy to spend hours trying to find all the different types of swans, catching tadpoles and searching for swan nests on the banks of the lake. There's also a lovely playground and spots for picnicking. I was happy to be surrounded by such unbelievable beauty.

Swan Lake Iris Gardens might not be as famous as the ballet, but it should be. It is just as gorgeous and magical - and yet it's real. 

Kerry Egan
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