Swan Lake-Iris Gardens overcame accidental start

  • Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A butterfly garden is one of the many treasures to be found at Swan Lake-Iris Gardens. PHOTOS BY JUDY FARLEY


Remember back in the day when you were a kid going on a school field trip? Or, perhaps more recently when you may have been a parent-chaperone or a teacher in charge of a class? Those were exciting, fun times, just being away from the classroom and on an adventure to see and experience new places and things.

Recently, a more mature group of ladies from the Garden Club of Snee Farm had just that sort of day, embarking on a pleasant day trip to the fabled Swan Lake-Iris Gardens just under two hours north of the Lowcountry in Sumter.

After the long stretches of rain and below average temperatures, we were favored by a gorgeous day, dry and with low humidity, as we arrived at the City of Sumter’s Visitors Center.

There, we learned that Swan Lake-Iris Gardens had emerged as a completely unplanned stroke of good fortune. The project was begun in 1927 as a fishing retreat for successful local businessman Hamilton Carr Bland. His plan was to develop the 30 acres of swamp on the property while landscaping the grounds of his large home with Japanese iris (Iris ensata) a tall, regal flower whose dominant colors ranged from a light violet to a deep imperial purple.

Unfortunately for Bland, the plantings failed miserably. In an attempt to salvage his grand plan, he consulted with both local horticulturists and experts from as far afield as New York to no avail. Finally, Bland ordered his gardeners to dig up the unproductive bulbs and dispose of them unceremoniously in the swamp.

Much to his amazement, the following spring those very same bulbs burst forth in full bloom. Bland might have been spared his initial dismay had even one of the horticulturists he consulted mentioned that “Oh, by the way, Iris ensata likes ‘wet feet’.” Turns out this particular flower thrives in a very damp environment, which is precisely what Bland’s bulbs had gotten when he had them tossed aside to what he incorrectly assumed would be a watery grave.

What began as an accidental garden has since been developed into one of the premier botanical attractions in the nation.

At the time of our garden club visit, no tour guides were available so the 47 women in our group struck out on the suggested ¾ mile stroll along the lake.

Immediately, we began encountering those eponymous swans (genus Cygnus), both the well-known white swans and the lesser-known and more exotic black swans. Brought to Sumter from around the world, they now grace the Sumter wetlands year-round. In all, eight separate species of swan are represented at the park.

Also of considerable interest to the garden club members were the namesake Japanese irises. The 150 acre garden boasts the most extensive collection in the United States. Irises bloom early in the spring, reaching their peak in mid-May. At the time of our visit, we were not able to witness full bloom, but the examples already flowering were spectacular enough for many of us to consider return trips later in season. Interestingly, the ever present companions of the graceful irises were hosts of stately turtles. Friendly as they might seem, sound advice is not to try to pat the turtles, as some are snappers. And, the occasional alligator has been spotted lurking in the swamp as well.

In addition to irises the gardens offer many additional floral attractions including colorful camellias, azaleas, day lilies and Japanese magnolias.

Our nature walk took us through the Braille Trail, offering the visually impaired the opportunity to enjoy the scents and sensations of the extensive gardens and to learn about them as well.

A unique feature that pleased all of us was the Chocolate Garden. No, bon bons don’t grow on trees. But, all of the plantings here exude the rich aroma of fine cocoa. Close your eyes and you’ll feel transported to an elegant confectionery.

Welcoming guests to the Butterfly Garden is a majestic yellow wrought iron butterfly. Within, throngs of delicate, colorful Lepidoptera flit and fly among more gorgeous plantings.

Nearby, the Heath Garden features a towering masterpiece, “Recovery” by renowned sculptor Grainger McKoy. Eighteen feet tall and made of brushed steel, it is a monument to humanity’s and nature’s resilience.

After our tour of Swan Lake-Iris Gardens, our group repaired for lunch to Serendipity on Main Street, with its extensive Southern buffet. Seated in a private area of the restaurant we dined on chicken, beef and pork and a multitude of sides. Desserts were offered before the meal and many of them were simply too delightful to pass up.

Mission accomplished, we garden club members boarded our bus well-fed and well-pleased with our day at Swan Lake-Iris Gardens.

On the way home, many of us relived the day’s activities. Brenda Temple, president of the Garden Club of Snee Farm, termed the trip “Fantastic” noting that she particularly enjoyed “the serene walk through the gardens.” Social co-chair Louise Pennisi called the experience “Enchanting…a wonderful public space.”

And member Vivian Doolittle enjoyed the “lovely stroll through groomed, tranquil gardens” adding, however, that she had a few moments of apprehension when confronted by a particularly aggressive white swan that nipped at several ladies ankles. “We had to scramble.”

Curiously, no one made any humorous references to having been perplexed at all the wildlife, when she had expected to be attending a ballet. But, one or two kidders wondered if participating in the Swan Lake-Iris Gardens “field trip” might result in a gold star on their report cards.

Swan Lake-Iris Gardens is something of a well-kept secret but ideal for group visits or family excursions. For more information go to tourism@sumter-sc.com

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