Every plant has its own story


I have been master gardening for 10 years, and for a few years, I worked at Drayton Hall, a property of The National Trust for Historic Preservation on the Ashley River.

My avocation and my occupation crossed paths frequently. At Drayton Hall, there were programs for students, elementary age and older, about agriculture on a Lowcountry Colonial plantation.

To assist Drayton Hall’s educators, I grew rice and indigo in big pots. Conducting public tours of the house and the grounds, I was surprised how often gardening came up. Questions concerning the grand oak trees and their Spanish moss were common.

To visitors from Canada, Ireland, or Colorado, moss draped live oaks were as unusual as alligators, and alligators were right up there with dinosaurs on the exotic scale. Magnolia trees excited comment as did sweet gum trees. Any tree producing a cone or ball that did not resemble a pine cone was considered peculiar. Azaleas, gardenias, camellias, beauty berries and a thorny orange piqued the curiosity of visitors from off.

Sometimes, I was the gardening student instead of the teacher. One occasion stands clearly in my memory when a handful of us nature-loving souls tried to keep up with renowned botanist and professor emeritus, Richard Porcher.

He is the author or co-author of “Lowcountry: The Natural Landscape,” “A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina,” “The Story of Sea Island Cotton,” and a book on South Carolina rice culture among other publications.

Dr. Porcher is an extremely energetic, amusing and informative field guide. Before setting off at a brisk pace across Drayton Hall’s lawn toward the marsh, he paused a second to point his worn walking stick at the new landscaping around the museum shop.

Slowing to admire the plantings, I immediately fell behind Dr. Porcher, who was explaining things nonstop as he marched. I sprinted to catch up as he talked about the honey locust tree beside Drayton Hall. The mother tree went down in Hurricane Hugo; this was a root sprout, and he talked about whether it is disturbing an archaeological site, should it be saved or not, and more. (The honey locust was removed in 2012.)

I learned to keep moving if I hoped to hear the constant stream of fascinating information. Dr. Porcher did linger a moment to announce, “Every plant has its own story!”

Entering the Marsh Walk, he had us touch the barbed seeds of needle grass to understand its name and to identify it correctly. In midstride, he directed his walking stick at a yaupon holly, explaining this native was the source of an American Indian caffeinated tea, but only the youngest leaves were used and the berries avoided.

Otherwise, the meaning of its botanical name, Ilex vomitoria, would become evident. With a swing of his walking stick, our attention was focused on a popcorn or Chinese tallow tree, a malicious invader of native wetlands he wanted to see eradicated from Drayton Hall property.

Pausing on the bridge over the rice trunk gate, Dr. Porcher enthusiastically explained the tidal flow flooding system for rice fields. Looking at the remnants of the reservoir pond, I hustled to catch up to Dr. Porcher who was yards ahead saying something about the Cherokee rose at the end of his walking stick. That may be the state flower of Georgia, but the Cherokee rose was an 18th century import from China (sorry, Georgia). We were reminded, “Every plant has its own story.”

Marching on through the marsh, we learned to distinguish a dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) from an infant South Carolina state tree palmetto (Sabal major): the state tree has thin filaments curling off the edges of the leaves.

Dr. Porcher’s walking stick pointed accusingly at a large bush of Elaeagnus and another and another. The Asian import had become relentlessly invasive. Drayton Hall’s grounds staff worked hard to eliminate Elaeagnus, but it was impossible to stop.

Dr. Porcher turned happily to a native swamp dogwood, buckeye and red cedar. Stopping on the boardwalk, he proposed a nature trail to meander through hundreds of acres around Drayton Hall.

He animatedly described how the marsh, the Ashley River, the cultivated rice terrain, the phosphate mining remains, the vestiges of the manicured landscape, the layers of history, the plants and, of course, their stories would fit into this design.

Reluctant to end our unique afternoon hike, we lingered. Suddenly, Dr. Porcher was off aiming his walking stick at the trees beside the pond calling out, “Is this a native red mulberry or an imported white mulberry?” Encountering our lack of mulberry knowledge, he explained the two types then took a side trip into the ill-fated American silk industry. This was important because, as Dr. Porcher mentioned again, “Every plant has its own story.”

Yvette Richardson Guy, a Clemson University Master Gardener for Dorchester County, lives in Summerville. She is married to architect Randy L. Guy and they have a son, Micah, a recent master’s graduate of Clemson.