Turn off the busy stretch of U.S. 17 between Pawleys Island
and Murrells Inlet
and you’ll find a secret paradise on South Carolina’s coast
To be fair, Brookgreen Gardens
is no secret to its visitors who return year after year to relax in its more than 9,000 acres of luscious scenery and take in its more than 1,400 works of art. But as you drive your car onto its grounds, leaving the summer beach traffic behind, the dapped sunlight dancing through the oaks makes you feel as if you are entering your own private wonderland.
This year, Brookgreen Gardens is celebrating its 80th anniversary. Archer and Anna Huntington, who had already built their grand home, Atalaya
, across the street, established the gardens in 1931. Anna was a renowned sculptor, and the couple was captivated by the idea of displaying her artwork, along with the work of other American sculptors, in the lush natural setting of the Carolina beachfront.
Over time, the gardens have developed into a massive outdoor museum that celebrates American art, Lowcountry wildlife, native flora and the history of the land that has become Brookgreen. As Helen Benso, VP of Marketing for Brookgreen Gardens says, “Brookgreen Gardens is a place where history, art, and nature merge seamlessly.”
It’s not surprising that the beauty of the place is breathtaking, even to the people who spend every day on the grounds.
“When I pull up every morning it’s so beautiful I expect to see Tara on the other side of the hill,” says Kathy Klein who works as a Guest Service Associate.
There’s something about the place; as soon as you enter the gardens you feel a million miles away from the stress of your everyday life. And though the gardens are meticulously planned, there is a respect in the design for the native landscape that lends an air of wildness to the place that is as calming as it is lovely.
There are more than 300 acres of gardens open to the public, though you can see 6,000 more acres by taking part in one of Brookgreen’s many excursions
. Special attention is paid to make sure that the gardens look their best no matter what time of year you visit.
In all, the gardens showcase more than 2,000 plant species. On a fall trip you will be greeted by flowering Chrysanthemums and Spider lilies, in winter you will find shrubs like Camellias and Winter Jasmine in full bloom, in spring daffodils, azaleas and fields of roses, and in summer Southern favorites like Gardenias, Crape Myrtle trees and Magnolias.
As you wander Brookgreen’s grounds, you will see art tucked into every corner.
The sculpture on the property represents the work of more than 300 American artists from the 19th century to present. It demonstrates a wide variety of styles and subjects, ranging from classical nudes to realistic bronze animals to more abstract, metal sculptures that line the hills along the river.
In the Rainey Sculpture Pavilion Galleries, special rotating exhibits mean that there is always something new for repeat visitors. This summer there are two special exhibits on display running through July 24. The first, The Art Medal: Past and Present looks at sculpture on a small scale with a collection of medals, medallions and bas-reliefs.
The second, Selected Works by Rainey Master Sculptors, is devoted to Brookgreen Gardens’ Master Sculptor program. These sculptors-in-residence work on the property, drawing inspiration from their fellow sculptors’ work as well as from the inspirational setting, and offer demonstrations, workshops and lectures to the public. The program is a wonderful way to bring a constant surge of contemporary artists to the garden’s established collection.
Some of the most breathtaking sculptures on the property belong to Anna Hyatt Huntington herself. Her large-scale pieces graced the streets of New York City and boulevards of France. At Brookgreen, her classically inspired Diana of the Chase shows the goddess of the hunt emerging from a beautiful pool of water, surrounded by the draping limbs of trees. Elsewhere on the grounds, keep an eye out for her amazingly life-like animals. Anna Huntington loved animals and kept a small zoo at Atalaya so that she could accurately depict every expression and ripple of their muscles.
This magnificent sculpture garden is built on a large tract of land that used to comprise The Oaks, Brookgreen, Springfield and Laurel Hill plantations. Brookgreen Gardens uses the story of the land as a springboard for exploring the rich and troubled history of the Lowcountry, as well as the lives of the enslaved Africans who worked the land.
The jumping off point for these explorations is the Lowcountry Center. There you can take in the exhibit Change and Continuity, which gives an overview of the Lowcountry’s history, and buy tickets for a number of special excursions.
Creek Cruises offer a chance to look at the Brookgreen property from a different vantage point as you head down the Waccamaw River in a forty-foot pontoon boat. Your interpreter explains how the enslaved Africans worked this land and points out how the unique, marshy terrain made this a perfect spot for cultivating rice. (Today, it’s also a perfect spot for alligators, so keep your eyes peeled!) Creek Cruises run daily at 11.a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. with extra cruises in April.
Two treks take you along the Brookgreen’s back roads and allow you to see some of the historical sites from the former plantations. The Southern Trek takes you to the Oaks Plantation, home of the Alston family, where you will walk through the cemetery where generations of Alstons are buried. On the Northern Trek, visitors get a chance to see a Civil War era fort site and an historic rice mill chimney.
Excursions cost $7 for adults and $4 for children in addition to garden admission.
Kids can’t contain their excitement as they trip down the path to Brookgreen’s onsite zoo. The love of Carolina flora and fauna that spurred the Huntingtons to create the gardens is echoed in the Brookgreen Zoo’s focus on Lowcountry animals. Alligators, eagles, river otters, wild turkeys and other Carolina critters make their home there.
Nearby, there are two more chances to learn about the wildlife of the Lowcountry. The Domestic Animals of the Plantation Exhibit links the zoo to Brookgreen’s plantation history with rare breed Red Devon cows, Tunis sheep, Marsh Tacky Horses and one of the most vital working animals on a Southern plantation, the mule. The Cypress Aviary is dedicated to area birds; great blue herons and egrets fly overheard in this aviary built over a cypress swamp.
Perhaps the most fascinating brush with wildlife at Brookgreens is inside the seasonal exhibit The Whispering Wings Butterfly Experience. From April-October, visitors can walk among hundreds of butterflies in a special habitat.
The habitat is unique in that it is not climate controlled, so when a rare grey day rolls through, the butterflies are not that active. That was the case when I entered the Butterfly Experience. Guest Services Associate Kathy Klein helped me find butterflies who were quietly resting on tree branches, making good use of their wings’ camouflage. Suddenly, the sun came out from behind a cloud and in an instant there were Monarchs, Julias, Buckeyes and Queens flitting over my head in a stunning display of color.
If you have kids, a stop at Whispering Wings is a must. Klein says that while the sight of so many butterflies flying about overwhelms some children, most of them are “all smiles.”
Brookgreen Gardens is working to establish itself as a stop on the Monarch butterfly migration. You can see the beginnings of this plan in action outside of the Butterfly Experience, where they have planted rows of Milkwood (Monarch butterflies’ favorite host plant) that are crawling with big, green monarch caterpillars.
Brookgreen Gardens is located between Myrtle Beach and Pawleys Island off U.S. 17, just across from Huntington Beach State Park
. The gardens are open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., only closing on Christmas Day. Children 3 and younger are free when accompanied by an adult. Admission is $12 for ages 13-64, $10 for seniors 65 and older and $6 for children ages 4-12. A special feature of Brookgreen Garden admission is that your ticket is good for seven consecutive days, making return visits easy and affordable.