There is a world-acclaimed garden in Myrtle Beach, well, okay, in Murrells Inlet. But it is so much more than a garden. Brookgreen Gardens is also an education center, aviary, and zoo located on the Hammock Coast in South Carolina. When you visit the beach and purchase tickets for Brookgreen Gardens, you will learn that these are good for admission for seven consecutive days—and believe me, to see and do everything you’ll need them.
Brookgreen Gardens started in 1929 when Archer and Anna Huntington purchased four adjacent Georgetown County plantations, totaling 9,127 acres of swamp, rice fields, forest and beach. The plan was to make Brookgreen the winter home for this philanthropist and sculptress.
By 1931, the couple had started building Atalaya, a winter retreat and studio on the ocean and created a nonprofit institution to form the United States’ first sculpture garden. The creation of these places gave jobs to local craftsmen during the depression, and brought electricity to the areas beyond Georgetown.
Today, the garden occupies more than 400 of those acres, and more than 2,000 works of art call Brookgreen Gardens “home”. It is designated as a National Historic Landmark and is one of only a few places in the United States with accreditation from both the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the American Alliance of Museums.
When visiting Brookgreen, you can choose to take part in guided tours or stroll through the gardens on your own. The visitor’s center provides maps, and you don’t need to worry about getting lost with all the roving workers. In the south, we have something blooming year-round. Even in January and February (actually one of my favorite times in the garden), you can enjoy the beauty of camellias, followed shortly by an explosion of color from the azaleas.
The lovely Live Oak Allée is a long walk, framed by 250-year-old live oak trees planted in the early 1700s when Brookgreen Gardens was still four separate, thriving rice plantations.
One of my favorites is the butterfly garden. It was designed in the pattern of the four wings of a butterfly. The blossoms attract a variety of actual butterflies. Within the four wings are a Kitchen Garden and a Children’s Garden, including a large area complete with a turtle train sculpture.
Three other gardens have a more formal design. Roses, shrubs and large trees dot the Brenda W. Rosen Carolina Terrace Garden. The Palmetto Garden, named for South Carolina’s state tree, the sabal palmetto, was completed in 1950. And the playful Fountain of the Muses graces the Fountain of the Muses Garden.
Beyond the Garden Wall
Another favorite spot is a path that goes, literally, beyond the garden wall. This path meanders through a swamp to the creek (the one where the pontoon tours go). I enjoy walking along the creek, up to the labyrinth, and on to the Lowcountry Center. You will spot turtles sunning, fish jumping, and with any luck an osprey or eagle fishing. Yes, there are alligators along the creek banks, and sometimes even on the trail. You just have to keep your eyes open for these.
Brookgreen Gardens is home to the largest and most comprehensive collection of American figurative sculptures displayed throughout the garden. Four indoor galleries house small sculptures, paintings, etchings, and other art by internationally-known artists. Often the work is on loan, giving local South Carolinians the chance to see art that otherwise would not be possible.
Says Wayne Craven, author of Sculpture in America, Brookgreen Gardens is “unequaled in its size, focus on figurative works, visibility of the sculpture to the visitor, and integration within a garden setting.”
Excursions and Lowcountry Education
Tours of Brookgreen can be taken on foot, by boat, or by jeep. The offerings vary by season; for instance, they don’t take you out into the Preserve in the summer when ticks and snakes may be an issue. There is an additional price for these tickets. Insider Tip: Tour sizes are limited, so pay for your tickets early in the day to be sure you get to do what you want.
There are a variety of classes and lectures throughout the year, with topics that range from beekeeping to Gullah Geechee programs. Wait until you hear Ron Daise read The Night Before Christmas in Gullah! Daise happens to be Brookgreen’s Vice President for Creative Education. If that name sounds familiar…well…Ron and his wife Natalie had a children’s television show, Gullah Gullah Island.
Creek excursions are offered from March until November. Travel the creek like the original settlers did, except you’ll be on a pontoon boat. As you cruise along, you will learn about and see the area, rice fields, alligators, waterfowl and birds of prey. The interpreter will discuss the role of enslaved Africans in rice cultivation and the history of the Lowcountry.
Join an interpreter for a trekker ride among historic live oaks to plantation cemeteries, the site of a Civil War-era earthen fort, and a historic rice mill chimney. You have a panoramic view of the Waccamaw River as you drive along the top of the area’s highest bluffs. Or you can tour the site of the Oaks Plantation and view a long leaf pine forest while hearing the stories of the Alston family from colonial to antebellum times.
The Gardens hold special events throughout the year, like wine and music, and summer concerts. But they are best known for Nights of a Thousand Candles. The gardens are open nights on special evenings between Thanksgiving and New Year, and twinkle and glow with millions of lights and nearly 3,000 hand-lit candles.
There are music tents where local bands and musical groups perform. Bagpipers stroll through the gardens. Food tents are filled with visitors enjoying delicious Lowcountry cuisine. Insider Tip: Come early! The line to enter often backs up into the highway.
The Lowcountry Zoo is one of five accredited zoos in South Carolina. The native animals in the Lowcountry Zoo could not survive in the wild. They were either bred and raised in captivity or had a major injury. Insider Tip: Arrive early for the “Walk Through the Zoo,” an hour tour (free with garden admission) when animals are fed a snack, and the interpreter gives you behind-the-scene information. Plus, it is a great photo op.
The butterfly house is open May through October and features tropical plants and hundreds of butterflies gliding through the air. There is a pupae emergence room, where you can witness the miracle of butterfly life, beautiful butterflies emerging from the chrysalis.
Just the names of the butterflies are bound to make you smile. Species you will see include the Gulf Fritillary, Zebra Longwing, Red Admiral, Giant Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Painted Lady, and American Lady. Insider Tip: Go on a sunny day to see the most action. Butterflies are cold-blooded and need the sun to get them going—like your relationship with coffee, right?
Brookgreen Gardens goes above and beyond when it comes to programs and classes. If you are interested in taking a class, check the website, or sign up for their monthly email, so you don’t miss out. I’ll list just a few of my favorites to whet your appetite.
Brookgreen 101 holds class on the fourth Thursday of the month. Topics range from Brookgreen collections to local Native American research. Speakers come from all over South Carolina and are always knowledgeable and entertaining.
Yoga in the Garden on Saturdays fills up fast, so be ready for spring’s sign-ups.
Brookgreen holds an annual Constitution Day celebration. “We, the people of Brookgreen Gardens, invite you to come out, one and all, on September 17, to celebrate the signing of the Constitution.” Members of the Carolina Gold Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution read the Constitution aloud. Be prepared to be moved.
Welcome the change of seasons with a walk of the medieval, seven-circuit Chartres labyrinth. Insider Tip: It is beside a tidal creek, so flooding happens. Call and double-check that the event will happen before you make the trip.
Harvest Home Weekend Festival is held every October. The scarecrow building gets pretty competitive, and younger kids will enjoy the hay maze.
There is Spring Break Camp and various Summer Camps for kids, including topics like ocean study, zoo keeping, art, and dinosaurs. Oh, to be a kid again and sign up for these.
Each season, there are new exhibitions, plantings, and events. As Brookgreen describes itself: Brookgreen Gardens…Ever Changing. Simply Amazing.
Brookgreen Gardens offers three dining options. Or you can bring a picnic and make good use of the picnic tables. Either way, if you get hungry, you have only yourself to blame.
The Old Kitchen at the end of the Live Oak Allée sells sandwiches, quiche, and desserts. Insider Tip: Eat on the porch for the best garden view—but prepare to fight the squirrels for a bite.
Harvest Restaurant has a full menu. It closes at 3pm, so don’t plan on a late lunch. Insider Tip: Get the She Crab Soup. Trust me.
The Courtyard Café at the Lowcountry Center is perfect for a quick sandwich and chips or a hot dog. They also have cookies, beer, wine, smoothies, and soft drinks. Insider Tip: Since this is where you meet the trekker or pontoon, it is a good spot to grab a bite before a tour.
Everyone will find something to love when they visit Brookgreen Gardens. Besides, where else in Myrtle Beach (or anywhere) can you find sculpture-filled gardens, nesting birds, foxes that climb trees (yes, really) baby otters, pontoon rides and historic rice mill chimneys—all for the price of one garden entry? And for more to-do ideas in Myrtle Beach, read my article on Visit Myrtle Beach.
Places Worth a Stay—Under 10 Miles Away
Seaview Inn, Pawley’s Island – The season opens in April and runs through early November. This beachfront inn was built in 1937; rate includes two meals each day.
Pelican Inn, Pawley’s Island – Located between the beach and salt marsh, the 1840s bed and breakfast is open for the season from Memorial Day until Labor Day; rate includes breakfast and lunch.
Awards and Honors
The list of awards and honors is as lengthy as it is impressive. I’ll list just a few—just to prove to you that I’m not alone in thinking Brookgreen is very nearly Heaven on earth!
- South Carolina Heritage Tourism Award – from Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation
- National Sculpture Society’s Herbert Adams Medal for outstanding contribution to American Sculpture
- Coastal Carolina University’s David Drayton Award – Preserving Gullah Culture
- Historic Ricefields Association’s Carolina Gold Award
- 10 Best Attractions in South Carolina – USA Today
- Top Five Favorite Gardens – Southern Living Magazine readers
- USA Today’s 10 Best – #9 in Best Botanical Garden category, 2018
- USA Today’s 10 Best – Nights of a Thousand Candles Top 10 in Best Botanical Garden Holiday Lights category, 2018
- Best Christmas Lights in South Carolina – Travel+Leisure Magazine, 2018
- Top 10 Public Gardens in the US – Coastal Living Magazine
- American Public Gardens Association Award for Garden Excellence, 2019
Featured image: Brookgreen Gardnes Live Oaks / Jo Clark
Jo Clark loves spending time at Brookgreen Gardens, whether it is day or night, winter or summer. She is fortunate to live just 15 minutes away, and can visit often. Follow her travels on Instagram, Facebook, or read her other travel articles on her web page.