Gardens are popular tourist attractions, with Longwood, Biltmore, New York, Brooklyn, and Atlanta among some of the better known. On Business Route 17 in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, about 2 hours north of Charleston and 20 minutes south of Myrtle Beach, there is a unique garden museum that features indigenous flora, fauna, history, and the largest display of outdoor sculpture by American artists in the world. It has been named a National Historic Landmark and can easily take a full day or more to truly appreciate. A single ticket is good for 7 days. With its many offerings, it is a location that all can enjoy, even those for whom visiting a garden is not a high priority.
In 1930, Archer Milton Huntington, wealthy philanthropist and avowed naturalist and his artist wife, Anna Hyatt, purchased four adjoining former rice plantations along the Waccamaw River. Desirous of sharing their love of art and nature with all, they founded Brookgreen Gardens which now encompasses 9,200 acres of diverse terrain including forested and tidal swamps and salt marshes. Brookgreen was the name of one of the four plantations.
Anna Hyatt Huntington designed her firstgarden in the shape of an open wing butterfly. Three additional gardens were added with more than 2000 species of plants. The emphasis is on those native to coastal Carolina, although there are exotics that have adapted to the climate. Something is always in bloom; the garden’s website provides a list of seasonal blooms. There is an arboretum, as well as the Live Oak Allee Garden with a majestic canopy of 250 year old oaks.
As the first public sculpture garden in America, there are more than 1400 pieces in Brookgreen’s collection, with many of them integrated into the natural setting. Featuring US figurative artists who worked from the early 1800s to the present, new works are added annually. The indoor/outdoor Brown sculpture court is a visitor favorite, with its reflecting pool and cascading waters.
The zoo encompasses more than 23 acres and features animals indigenous to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. All of the animals were either bred and raised in captivity or came from rehabilitation centers after an injury prevented them from returning to the wild. The Cypress Aviary is the only known aviary built over a cypress swamp. Often wildbirds can be spotted in certain locations on the zoo property.
The garden property is rich in the history of Lowcountry plantation society. In the 1850s, more than half of the rice produced in the United States came from this area. Brookgreen has established a Lowcountry History and Wildlife Preserve that features an exhibition center, cultural garden, and walking trail. Along the trail are interpretive panels, a restored rice field, and larger than life characters who share their stories of life on the plantation. A second self guided trail leads to the archeological site of the former plantation house and slave village.
The Oaks Plantation History and Nature trail is accessible only by mini bus and requires an additional nominal fee. Pontoon boat cruises on the Waccamaw River creeks among the rice fields are available as are ATV “Trekker Excursions” on the back roads of the property not generally open to the public.
There is a learning and research center to explore as well as daily programs including tours and a “meet the animals” opportunity, exhibitions, excursions, and special and seasonal events. A 10 minute film provides an overview of the gardens. The children’sdiscovery room includes hands on and interactive activities. A walking guide introduces four suggested walks, ranging from .8 to 2.2 miles. The gardens are handicap accessible; push chairs are available.
Seasonal activities include Daffodil Days in the spring, evening cruises and live entertainment in summer, an autumn harvest festival and Nights of a Thousand Candles in December. During this event, the gardens sparkle with thousands of luminaries, holiday lights, Chinese lanterns, and holiday entertainment. It is truly a magical time.
The Sculptors in Residence program provides the opportunity for visitors to observe working artists. Drawing and sculpting workshops are offered year round, taught by nationally known artists.
There are 3 dining options at Brookgreen, ranging from a café serving a limited menu of snacks and sandwiches/salads to a full service restaurant with more extensive lunch options.
A visit to Brookgreen Gardens would not be complete without a meal at one of the many restaurants in Murrells Inlet on the Waccamaw River; Murrells Inlet is known as the “Seafood Capital of South Carolina.” Once a small fishing village, Murrells Inlet still maintains a quiet ambience despite the popularity of local restaurants. Drunken Jack’s, Dave’s Dockside, DeadDog Saloon, and Creek Ratz are local favorites and offer marsh views. Murrells Inlet has quite a history. Native Americans, Spanish explorers and English colonists all set foot here. Blackbeard and other pirates hid in the Inlet’s creek waiting to attack and raid ships and purportedly stashed treasure here. During the Civil War, the Inlet was used by blockade runners as a port for exchanging goods with England for war materials; this led to an attack by Union warships. It’s claimed hush puppies were invented here, but I’m sure that’s debatable! The Waccamaw River is part of the Intercoastal Waterway.
If you want to stay overnight locally but don’t desire the hustle and bustle of Myrtle Beach, investigate Litchfield Beach. Accommodations range from chain motels to golf resorts.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.