2019-04-12 / On Second Thought

Conifers in the Antebellum South

By Keith Mearns, Horticulturist at Historic Columbia


Antebellum conifers Antebellum conifers The term “Antebellum Garden” often conjures images of overgrown azaleas, hydrangeas, and tree-like Camellias living in the dim light filtering through live oak canopy and clothed in oppressive heat and humidity. Altogether a rather unfit environment for most of the conifers grown in gardens today. This stereotypical image, while accurate for some antebellum gardens, was simply not representative of most of the great southern gardens of the 19th century.

Here at Historic Columbia, Evan Clements (director of grounds) and I, came to this realization as we were conducting research for a two-acre expansion of the gardens at the Hampton-Preston Mansion. This urban estate was in its heyday from 1840 to the end of the Civil War and was celebrated by any who visited its garden and grounds. The entire City of Columbia, as well, was a horticultural gem prior to its burning at the end of the war: this quote, taken from The Horticulturist in 1857, is illustrative of the gardens in Columbia, S.C.:

“MR. EDITOR: I like this place surpassingly well. Columbia is certainly one of the most beautiful rural towns in the United States. The Camellia, Pittosporum, Gardenias, Magnolias, all the new Pines, Firs, Spruces, Thuyas, etc., are here perfectly hardy, and very common in nearly every garden in the place, and nearly every dwelling has attached to it from one to four acres of ground under the protectorate of accomplished gardeners. There is a Magnolia grandiflora here 60 feet high, with a top whose diameter exceeds 70 feet— a perfect colossus of arboricultural beauty. I saw a Cryptomeria japonica, 20 feet in stature, and Araucaria Imbricata, 25 feet high, a Cedrus Deodorii, 32 feet from the ground to its extreme apex.” Certainly, we were surprised and relieved at both the apparent diversity of and the extent to which conifers were used. Because relatively few specific plant names were mentioned by visitors to the Hampton-Preston Mansion, we began to look for possible sources for the plants for which Columbia was famous. This led us to Pomaria Nurseries located in Newberry County, about 40 miles NW of Columbia and which also had a Columbia location in the last few years before the war. This nursery offered an incredible diversity of plants ranging from bedding perennials, to all types of fruit trees, and of course an extensive list of woody ornamentals, many of which are no longer grown in the south. Two brothers, Adam and William Summer, ran the nursery and curated relationships with many of the most active botanists and horticulturists of the time. This correspondence must have led to their acquiring the rarest of ornamental broadleaf plants and conifers.

By 1861, Pomaria Nurseries had a 96-page catalog including 343 unique ornamental trees and shrubs, 400 rose varieties, 163 dahlia varieties, 62 chrysanthemum varieties and 54 Camellia japonica cultivars. 52 distinct conifer cultivars/ species were offered by the nursery throughout their period of operation.

With the knowledge that these species were available to wealthy persons, we have utilized conifers at the gardens at the Hampton-Preston Mansion as both specimens and fillers. Some of our rare and unusual selections are now entering their third winter and have grown well for us so far. We have employed the popular practice of amending the soil with sand and gravel to accommodate the conifers’ need for excellent drainage and have even avoided using hardwood mulch over their root zones. Some of the other conifers we have planted from our research include Araucaria araucana, Araucaria angustifolia, Calocedrus decurrens ‘Maupin Glow’, Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Donard Gold’, Ginkgo biloba ‘Sunstream’, Juniperus virginiana ‘Hancock’s Weeping’, Pinus nigra ‘Oregon Green’, Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’, Taxodium x ‘Banita’, and four cultivars of Tsuga canadensis.

We plan to continue adding conifers to the Hampton-Preston garden as well as our three other heavily gardened sites here at Historic Columbia. We record our progress, successes, and failures in Historic Columbia’s Garden Database, which is now the only publicly searchable garden database in South Carolina and can be accessed at historiccolumbia.org/gardendatabase.

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