Raleigh, North Carolina, proudly advertises itself as the City of Oaks, but few citizens of either Carolina know that Aiken, South Carolina, has the largest collection of oak species in America. Its Citywide Arboretum includes Hitchcock Woods, the largest urban forest east of the Mississippi, with 2,100 acres featuring horse and walking trails. Another ongoing project seeks to reestablish the longleaf pine that was present when Aiken was laid out in 1834 and soon after became a fashionable summer retreat for Lowcountry planters, the playground of millionaires, and home to a sizable equestrian community.
Aiken’s South Boundary Avenue, a long allee of live oaks, is unforgettable. The city’s oaks include more than 150 labeled and tagged species, and the number continues to grow. On a two-mile stretch of Park Avenue and Beaufort Street alone, different species of oaks are planted every 55 feet. This streetscape is unique in America. Among the many rare and noteworthy oaks are the Mexican Quercus affinis; a federally listed endangered Texas oak, Q. hinckleyi; and a shrub oak from Portugal, Q. lusitanica. In 2017, more than 6,739 oaks were catalogued within the city arboretum.
On Colleton Avenue, rare trees bear labels accessible via cellphone for interesting information on the particular plant species. The new plantings along Colleton span a total of 40 years. Two of the dozens of plants that should amaze the viewer are Araucaria angustifolia — the Parana pine from Brazil and Argentina — and the Taiwanese Lithocarpus kawakami. The mature Parana pine is certain to impress. It looks like it belongs in a landscape with dinosaurs.
As Aiken’s trees continue to grow, they are destined to become even more impressive. Charlotte Wiedenman, visiting garden and history chairman for the Garden Club of Aiken, says, “Aiken’s arboretum is a relatively undiscovered emerald gem, but today the reputation of the collection is growing nationally. For example, a van filled with plant enthusiasts from Duke University just paid a visit.”
Charlotte is also president of the Friends of Hopelands and Rye Patch. Hopelands Gardens is a 24-acre garden off Whiskey Road and, of course, an important part of the Aiken Citywide Arboretum. The original 14-acre estate garden was begun around 1900 by Hope Goddard Iselin. Although the garden has many noble live oaks, its crowning glories are deodar cedars, which are among the largest in America; old Camellia japonicas; and a collection of rare and unusual trees and shrubs that a visitor is not likely to find elsewhere.
Perhaps the most noteworthy of Hopelands’ old trees is the funeral cypress, Cupressus funebris, introduced from China and sold to patrons by South Carolina’s Pomaria Nurseries in 1852. A beautiful evergreen with sweeping pendulous branches when young, it first raised the hopes of growers in the North but was soon found to be too tender for their climate. In China, it is used to landscape cemeteries, hence the name funeral. The tree, which thrives in Aiken’s favorable climate, may be the largest specimen in America. While many of the rarest plants at Hopelands have information available via cellphone, several noteworthy collections are awaiting labels. Of particular significance are the half dozen extremely rare Daphniphyllum species. These groupings are not to be seen elsewhere in such concentrated numbers.
Bob McCartney, world-renowned plantsman of Aiken’s Woodlanders Nursery, relates his philosophy of the Citywide Arboretum that he helped to create: “Unlike most arboreta, Aiken’s is more a collection than a place. The special trees may be in private yards or public spaces scattered within the arboretum’s 4-mile radius. They may be in a churchyard with a history of who planted them more than 150 years ago. They may be at the UPS facility or along the railroad track.”
Hopelands is a well-defined place within the arboretum. The high brick serpentine wall creates an elegant, quiet enclosure with a sense of mystery. Charlotte also notes, “The solid old walls help mediate winter temperatures so that tender plants have that little extra heat sometimes necessary to survive. I think this is another reason our wise early gardeners built them.” The walled garden’s tree-covered walks among large old camellias and giant tea olives are redolent of a patrician South.
Shortly after Hope Iselin’s bequest of Hopelands to the city following her death in 1970, Aiken hired landscape designer Robert Marvin to order the estate grounds. Various projects over the last half century have continued this process of enhancement. For example, building upon Hope’s collection of Camellia japonicas, the garden has added 17 camellia species to augment the dozens of old varieties of japonica and sasanqua. Where else might one find the rare, endangered yellow-and-white-flowered Camellia granthamiana, the fragrant C. lutchuensis, the snow-blossomed C. oleifera, and the mottled cinnamon-barked C. crapnelliana, all growing in close proximity without protection of glass? Where else would one find the East Asian Kagonoki (Actinodaphne lancifolia) or Urajiro Kankanoki (Glochidion triandrum)?
“These plants are found as small shrubs in Asia,” Charlotte says. “They are so rare in the United States they have no common name. In Hopelands they thrive, having reached small tree size.”
Aiken’s walled gardens and favorable climate allow such rareness forbidden in places even a short distance northward, locations like Clemson, Atlanta, Charlotte, Asheville, Durham, and Chapel Hill, for example. The Iselins’ former stables are now the impressive Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. For all its current beauty and interest, Hopelands is a work in progress. The garden is open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk with no admission fee.
Adjacent to Hopelands, the 10-acre Goodyear-Rogers estate garden, Rye Patch, was donated to the city by the Rogers children in 1984. Even its high wall along Whiskey Road has its own illustrious history. Its openings were bricked up in 1938 to provide privacy for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor when they visited their friends at Rye Patch. The estate’s former carriage house now houses a carriage museum displaying historical carriages, buggies, and surreys. The former stables have also been put to adaptive reuse.
Yet another notable high-walled garden within the City Arboretum is Rose Hill, the garden estate of Mrs. Sheffield Phelps, first president of the Garden Club of South Carolina. Begun around 1900, her garden occupies a city block. Its Camellia japonica collection was among the state’s finest, and many of her plantings are still growing beneath a canopy of noble trees. Visitors come to admire a famous yellow-berried Ilex opaca, and several extremely rare trees. Allees of old Azalea indica spill into the garden paths when they bloom in the spring. The Rose Hill Estate is now a bed and breakfast and event facility, and the stables have been converted to a restaurant.
The greatest treasure of the “emerald gem,” however, is Aiken’s unrivaled parkways and tree-covered streets. They give Aiken its unique sense of place and identity so that at any given spot one knows immediately that he or she is in Aiken and nowhere else.
These several dozen parkways in the old town, totaling more than 15 miles, constitute 176 blocks lined with trees and shrubs. The wise town planners in 1834 laid them out years before the likes of the famous Frederick Olmsted. The surveyors took an old construction camp for the South Carolina Canal and Railroad and laid out a grid with streets running north-south and avenues oriented east-west. The plan included boulevards 150 feet wide to serve as parks.
A major part of the town’s subsequent history is the story of its tree plantings. In 1877, when the town was still suffering from the desolation of war, the town council, with scant resources, oversaw the planting of 500 trees along its avenues. In the 1880s, hundreds of now magnificent old Magnolia grandifloras were planted on Park Avenue and in the southeast section of the town. The drive from Magnolia Street to the Whitney Polo Field displays some of America’s most beautiful magnolias, having achieved the growth of nearly a century and a half. The trees in the town’s southeastern quadrant were the work of William H. Barnard in the 1880s and ’90s.
In the 1890s, as part of the Aiken Improvement Society, J. H. Smith promoted the planting of native pine trees through the parks on Newberry, Richland, Florence, and Lancaster. The Aiken Improvement Society would become the Aiken Park Commission in 1916. Around 1900, banker Henry Dibble and several families joined forces in planting the wonderful live oaks on South Boundary. The resilient young trees survived family milk cows staked out to graze on the grass. In the early 1920s, Clarence Owens marshaled garden club members to plant native flowering trees on Hayne, Laurens, and South Boundary.
In 1956, Claudia Phelps, Mrs. Sheffield Phelps’ daughter and then president of the Garden Club of South Carolina, organized 40 garden club members to improve the parkways. This garden club group would become the Aiken Co-opers, which would then become the Aiken Garden Club Council. From 1958 to 1964, 4,000 trees and ornamental shrubs, including 1,000 azaleas, were planted in Aiken’s plants and parkways; ones planted on the parkway on Newberry Street from Richland Avenue to Edgefield Avenue are in memory of Ben Gardner, a former chairman of the Aiken Park Commission.
Aiken’s wise citizens since 1834, in every succeeding generation of both boom times and bust, have thus planted trees and resisted gobbling up the brick garden walls and green spaces to widen roads and pave parking lots. They apparently did not join the American enshrinement of the automobile or the all-too-popular prevalent city planning philosophy of efficiency in hurrying the greatest number of vehicles through the longest space in the shortest amount of time. Aiken’s traditional long-standing love of horses and the influence of her equestrian community no doubt helped to prevent car worship.
Neither have the wide tree-filled, park-like spaces between street lanes been denuded of their trees. Bob reflects that some of the giant longleaf pines may even be those left by the men who laid out the town in 1834 and are thus now the town’s oldest living inhabitants — survivors from the ancient virgin pine forest.
In 1980, nearly a century and a half after its founding, Aiken already had a glory of live oaks, magnolias, pine, holly, elm, sycamore, sweet gum, maple, catalpa, cedar, red-bud, dogwood, persimmon, and other trees in its parkways, but in the past four decades, the addition of other species to their number has been steady. It was in that auspicious year that the native plant nursery Woodlanders was founded on Colleton Avenue. Nursery proprietors, the late Julia and Robert McIntosh, as well as Bob received the city’s permission to begin adding various interesting and unusual plants to the existing old trees in the parkways. “It was just common sense and a help to both nursery and town,” says Bob. Today, the city employs a full-time horticulturist-arborist in its landscape department.
Forty years after Woodlanders began its plantings, Bob, at age 83, continues to plant, tag, and identify more rare shrubs and trees. He and his partners at Woodlanders take just pride in the 25 species of citrus they have growing in Aiken soil.
Bob’s extensive connections have aided him in adding richness to Aiken’s arboretum. In his own right, he has been an intrepid plant explorer and collector as well. His attendance at the various international plant societies continues to yield many new plants for Aiken. In 2018, for example, at the meeting of the International Oak Society, Bob took acorns to the Seed Exchange and came home with new species. Citrus expos and Palm Society gatherings always find him on the lookout for new plants. Bob’s work continues to be of great value to the on-going arboretum endeavor.
He and Charlotte work together with the city landscape department and city manager to continue to strengthen Aiken’s noble tree legacy, soon now to span two centuries. The folly of one generation could have broken the chain at any time and robbed future generations of this legacy of beauty. The old saying that the proof of the pudding is in the eating could be altered to read that in Aiken, the proof is in the seeing! And what a pleasure that seeing is.
James Everett Kibler, Jr., Ph.D., is editor of Taking Root: The Nature Writing of William and Adam Summer of Pomaria, USC Press, 2017.