- Grand Strand Weekend
- South Carolina for Kids
- South Carolina Bar-B-Que
- A Midlands Weekend
- Civil War Adventures
- South Carolina Waterways
- Three Days in Horse Country
- South Carolina for Seafoodies
- South Carolina Kitsch
- Gullah and African American History
- Upstate Weekend
- South Carolina’s Top Ten for Golfers
- South Carolina’s Offbeat Festivals
- Southern Comforts
- Lowcountry Romance
The most iconic plant life of the coastal region is the Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana). Named because of its evergreen nature, a live oak is technically any one of a number of evergreens in the Quercus genus, many of which reside in South Carolina, but in local practice almost always refers to the Southern live oak.
Capable of living over 1,000 years and possessing wood of legendary resilience, the Southern live oak is one of nature’s most magnificent creations. Though the timber value of live oaks has been well known since the earliest days of the American shipbuilding industry—when the oak dominated the entire coast inland of the marsh—their value as a canopy tree has finally been widely recognized by local and state governments as well.
Fittingly, the other iconic plant life of the coastal region grows on the branches of the live oak. Contrary to popular opinion, Spanish moss (Tillandsia usnesides) is neither Spanish nor moss. It’s an air plant, a wholly indigenous cousin to the pineapple. Also contrary to folklore, Spanish moss is not a parasite nor does it harbor parasites while living on an oak tree—though it can after it has already fallen to the ground.
Also growing on the bark of a live oak, especially right after a rain shower, is the resurrection fern (Polypodium polypodioides), which can stay dormant for amazingly long periods of time, only to spring back to life with the introduction of a little water. You can find live oak, Spanish moss, and resurrection fern anywhere in the maritime forest ecosystem of coastal South Carolina, a zone generally behind the interdune meadows, which is itself right behind the beach zone.
Far and away South Carolina’s most important commercial tree is the pine, used for paper, lumber, and turpentine. Rarely seen in the wild today due to tree farming, the dominant species is now the slash pine (Pinus elliottii), often seen in long rows on either side of rural highways.
Before the introduction of large-scale monoculture tree farming, however, a rich variety of native pines flourished in the upland forest inland from the maritime forest, chief among them the longleaf (Pinus palustris) and loblolly (Pinus taeda) pines. Longleaf forest covered nearly 100 million acres of the Southeast Coastal Plain upon the arrival of the Europeans; within 300 years most of it would be cut down and/or harvested.
Right up there with live oaks and Spanish moss in terms of instant recognition would have to be the colorful, ubiquitous azalea, a flowering shrub of the Rhododendron genus. Over 10,000 varieties have been cultivated through the centuries, with quite a wide range of them on display during blooming season, March–April, on the South Carolina coast (slightly earlier farther south, slightly later farther north).
The area’s other great floral display comes from the camellia (Camellia japonica), a large, cold-hardy evergreen shrub with flowers that generally bloom in late winter (January–March). An import from Asia, the southeastern coast’s camellias are close cousins to Camellia sinensis, from which tea is made (and also an import).
Other colorful ornamentals of the area include the ancient and beautiful Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), a native plant with distinctive large white flowers (evolved before the advent of bees); and the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), which despite its very hard wood—great for daggers, hence its original name “dagwood”—is actually quite fragile. An ornamental imported from Asia that has now become quite obnoxious in its aggressive invasiveness is the mimosa (Albrizia julibrissin), which blooms March–August.
Moving into watery areas, you’ll find the remarkable bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), a flood-resistant conifer recognizable by its tufted top, its great height (up to 130 feet), and its distinctive “knees,” parts of the root that project above the waterline and which are believed to help stabilize the tree in lowland areas. Much prized for its beautiful, pest-resistant wood, great stands of ancient cypress once dominated the marsh along the coast; sadly, overharvesting and destruction of wetlands has made the magnificent sight of this ancient, dignified species much less common.
The acres of smooth cordgrass that comprise the coastal marsh are plants of the Spartina alternaflora species. (A cultivated cousin, Spartina anglica, is considered invasive.) Besides its simple natural beauty, Spartina is also a key food source for marsh denizens. Playing a key environmental role on the coast are sea oats (Uniola paniculata). This wispy, fast-growing perennial grass anchors sand dunes and hence is a protected species (it’s a misdemeanor to pick them).
South Carolina isn’t called the “Palmetto State” for nothing. Though palm varieties are not as common up here as in Florida, you’ll definitely encounter several types along the coast. The cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), for which South Carolina is named, is the largest variety, up to 50–60 feet tall. Its “heart of palm” is an edible delicacy, which coastal Native Americans boiled in bear fat as porridge. In dunes and sandhills you’ll find clumps of the low-lying saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). The bush palmetto (Sabal minor) has distinctive fan-shaped branches. The common Spanish bayonet (Yucca aloifolia) looks like a palm, but it’s actually a member of the agave family.
© Jim Morekis from Moon South Carolina, 4th Edition