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Visiting Riverbanks Botanical Gardens

Over the River and Through the Woods to Riverbanks Botanical Garden

By Arlene Marturano, garden expert and writer.

Riverbanks Botanical Garden in Columbia, South Carolina is a 70-acre public garden situated within a riparian pine-hardwood forest community in the Saluda River valley. The twenty-two year young garden comprises eight theme gardens displaying the natural and cultural history of plants and people.

The Walled Garden at Riverbanks

A space 440 feet long and 120 feet wide emanating from the visitor center, The Walled Garden is the hub of Riverbanks. Divided down the middle by a water canal flowing its entire length, jets of water produce a soothing, bubbling sound. At either end of the canal, fountains send swirling water patterns skyward.

The Walled Garden by day; photo courtesy of Riverbanks Botanical Garden.

Natural building materials - clay, wood, and stone – give a local and timeless feel to the garden. An 8-foot brick wall reminiscent of The Secret Garden surrounds the entire space but visitors “peek” outside the walls through open windows and archways. Brick pavers line walkways along the canal and connect rooms within the garden. Each room focuses on a different display theme such as:

  • Plants providing food and shelter to birds
  • The knot and texture plot
  • Fruit and berries for the home garden
  • Evergreen groundcovers
  • Shade-loving perennials

The Walled Garden by night; photo courtesy of Riverbanks Botanical Garden.

The Old Rose Garden

The Old Rose Garden takes one back in time to grow forward. Old roses are an integral part of the Southern history and lifestyle from sprawling plantations, courtyard gardens, sharecropper cottages, family cemeteries, to roadside ditches. Grandmothers linked roses across generations by passing along cuttings to kin.

In the South, family histories were written in roses.

South Carolina was the birthplace of the Noisette rose, named for Philippe Noisette, a French horticulturist living in Charleston in the 1800s.

Riverbanks displays one of the largest public collections of Noisette Roses found anywhere.

When rose identities become lost and forgotten over time, raiders of the lost rose - aka 'rose rustlers' - conduct search and rescue missions to find, preserve, propagate and identify lost roses. Rose rustlers give the rescued rose a provisional name in double quotation marks, until positive identity is made. One such rose at Riverbanks bears the label: “Highway 290 Pink Buttons.”

Since peak rose-blooming season is spring, the garden features butterfly garden plants all summer and late-blooming perennials in fall.

The Bog Garden

This area replicates the aquatic environment for southeastern native water garden plants. A backdrop waterfall slides over a granite wall into a pool of colorful pitcher plants, American lotus lilies, and water lilies. Visitors watch for pitcher plants, Sarracenia spp., the largest group of carnivorous plants, to "eat" insects by tempting and trapping them into their hollow cone-shaped leaf (the pitcher) with a potion of nectar, sweet scent, and conspicuous coloration.

Pitcher plants in The Bog Garden.

The Asian Garden

A cool, serene, contemplative cove balancing and blending the trilogy of stone, water and plants is essential to oriental landscapes. The Asian Garden is the blended result of these three elements, fostering the feeling of living close to nature.

The Oriental plants seen here, like slow-growing evergreens, deciduous lacy Japanese maple and Chinese wingnut, or a stand of clumping bamboo are now popular items in American gardens too.

Visitors will experience the same excitement of professional plant hunters who know Asia as a destination for locating new plants to the world.

Edgeworthia chrysantha, paperbush shrub, in Asian Garden.

The Orene Horton Shade Garden

Under a dense canopy of mature pines and hardwoods, visitors will find the Shade Garden. Homeowners who live in similar settings or who are looking to fill small pockets of shade can view a large, labeled collection of herbaceous and woody shade-loving perennials, bulbs, vines, and shrubs displayed in a natural woodland setting throughout the year.

The Collection Garden

Containing over 100 species of crinum lilies - aka milk and wine lilies - is the Collection Garden. Plantsman Jenks Farmer introduced the large bulbs with low maintenance to Riverbanks. These Methuselah of bulbs outlive their owners and heirs. Since they are pest and disease free and resistant to brown thumbs, a crinum collection is a long- term investment.

The Dry Garden

A circular garden in the parking lot of the West Columbia entranceway to the botanical garden, The Dry Garden reflects xeric or desert landscape design. Take a river-rock walk lined in succulents and drought-tolerant species, including yucca, agave, prickly pear cactus, and palms. These plants are well adapted to the hot summers with little or no rainfall of the desert southwest and the unpredictable precipitation patterns in the southeast.

Waterfall Junction,

Newest of gardens at Riverbanks, Waterfall Junction is an adventure for the young and young at heart:

Fossil Dig in Waterfall Junction.
  • Dig for T-rex fossils with Archaeopteryx flying overhead
  • Crawl into a rabbits’ warren in prairie grass
  • Water dinosaur kale in Mrs. Pat’s vegetable garden
  • Wade in water (even in winter) in splash pools
  • Play tic tac toe and checkers on the grassy meadow
  • Compose a musical score on vertical chimes
  • Climb to the treetops like a wild animal
  • Children’s classes take place year round

Wading in water in winter at Waterfall Junction.

Riverbanks’ visitors come from all over the world as does their plant collection. And garden horticulturists share cuttings, seeds, and potted plants to destinations around the world, as well.

Botanical garden admission includes exploring Riverbanks Zoo, which is accessible from a pedestrian/tram bridge over the Saluda River connecting garden and zoo. Walkers can view the Civil War era covered bridge abutments where General Sherman’s army entered to burn Columbia. A granite boulder lined walking trail along the banks of the Saluda reveals the mill race and ruins of Old Saluda Factory textile mill. Open daily from 9am to 5pm (everyday except for Thanksgiving and Christmas), you can plan your visit at Riverbanks.org.

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