It’s one thing to visit a town that has gardens. It’s another when the entire town is a garden. That’s what you’ll find in Aiken, South Carolina.
The town’s early history is connected to the railroad, followed by northerners who wintered in this trendy enclave of the late 1800s into the 1940s. These Winter Colonists, as they were called, brought with them their passions for horses, fancy parties, and estates filled with gardens. Today in Aiken, it’s the gardens that are still the real stand out.
A good place to start your visit is at the train depot, a recreation on the original site that serves as the visitor center. Aiken owes its early success to the train line that went through here in 1833. At the time, it was the longest train line in the world at 137 miles from Charleston to Hamburg near Augusta, Georgia. The dioramas inside the museum depict the nine towns along this original route of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company.
As train travel expanded in the U.S., the rich and famous found Aiken to be a health resort. They arrived in private Pullman cars to escape winter up north or to get away from mosquito laden coastal areas in summer. Two of the early winter colonists were Oliver and Hope Iselin, who built their winter estate here, which today is known as Hopelands Gardens.
Aiken’s Showcase Garden
Hope Iselin is responsible for developing these gardens that surrounded her home. She planted many of the live oaks and deodora cedars, some over 100 years old, that tower above the landscape today.
She had the serpentine wall installed at the home’s original entrance. She also planted the oak allée, now used to access the gardens from the parking lot. As you wander the paths of these gardens, you’ll find impressive plantings of camellias and azaleas, dogwoods, Yoshino cherries, osmanthus, and Japanese maples.
Upon her death in 1970, Hopelands was given to the City of Aiken. The town added many new sections to the gardens to make it a year round display instead of a winter garden. The city also added fountains, a reflection pool, wetlands, and even a stage area for concerts. The Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum is adjacent to Hopelands and showcases the horse history of the region. Rye Patch is an estate behind Hopelands with the original buildings, mostly used for events, and a rose garden.
Rose Hill Estate
Another winter colony home is now the Rose Hill Estate, a lovely inn near downtown. Taking up almost five acres on one full city block, Rose Hill is classic Winter Colony charm.
The Dutch Colonial style main building with the inn’s guest rooms has the look of a country home popularized in the American country house movement of the early 20th century. Boxwood and azalea lined paths wind through lush garden settings of over 100 different types of plants; camellia, rhododendron, acuba, daphne, pieris, holly, gardenia, and more fill the spaces. The South Carolina and Aiken garden clubs were founded here as the estate’s original owner Claudia Phelps was a gardener.
She designed the gardens to lead to intriguing views and interesting plants along the way. It’s the largest privately designed garden in the state. It’s said one of the oldest camellias in the state is here. Her original drawings of the gardens’ design are in the state archives. Several other buildings are on the grounds, including The Stables restaurant housed in the estate’s original equestrian building. Inside the main home is the fine dining restaurant Sheffields.
Aiken’s Arboretum Trail
Aiken has an extensive system of parkways with gardens and towering trees in the middle.
Colleton Avenue is the heart of the city’s Arboretum Trail that starts at the city library. Information on oaks from around the world along with many rare tree species found here can be accessed on your phone. Dial 803-295-5008 and enter the tree’s number as posted to learn more about that species. Make sure to take a drive on South Boundary Street to experience the stunning several blocks long canopy of live oaks.
Aiken’s Historic Site
Thirty minutes south of downtown is the Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site. Completed in 1859, this 400-acre plantation with a Greek Revival house was the country estate of James Henry Hammond. He also owned three larger plantations within 10 miles of here.
Hammond developed Redcliffe to be different from a typical plantation. He had it professionally designed with orchards and a vineyard where he hoped to operate a winery. It never quite succeeded as the grapes didn’t like the humid weather. You can still see the orchard and vineyard terraces across the landscape. There are also remnants of the magnolia grandiflora allée that he planted for the grand entrance to the estate. Closer to the house are many ornamentals; gardenias, camellias, and deodora cedars. The cherry bark oak is pre-civil war and the oldest tree here. There is a two-mile trail to enjoy the property or just wander on your own across this timeless landscape.
Crinum Lilies Grow Here
Down the road from Redcliffe is the home and farm of Jenks Farmer. If you grow crinum lilies, then you’ve probably heard of Jenks who is one of the few who raise and sell these beautiful iconic plants to gardens and gardeners around the world.
A trained horticulturist who helped develop the Riverbanks Botanical Garden in Columbia, South Carolina, Jenks eventually turned his attention to the homeplace where he was raised. The circa 1750s home was already 100 years old by the time Redcliffe was built. His parents raised their family off the land and it’s this same land that Jenks uses to grow his renowned criniums and ships thousands of bulbs a year to gardeners eager to add these beloved plants to their landscape. Jenks offers several classes a year at the farm and he is the author of numerous books, including his latest “Funky Little Flower Farm” available at jenksfarmer.com or on Amazon.
When You Go:
Learn more about the region at the Aiken County Historical Museum housed in one of the Winter Colony homes. Called “Banksia” after the Lady Banks Rose, the museum houses an extensive collection of local history.
Hitchcock Woods is 2,100 acres with over 70-miles of trails that make up this urban forest. This dense assemblage of trees, mostly longleaf pine, is popular with hikers and runners, dog walkers, and equestrians. It’s also a perfect place to try out Shinrin-yoku or “forest-bathing.”
On the edge of downtown, take a drive on the unique dirt roads that make up Aiken’s century-old equestrian community. Be aware; Aiken is one of the few cities where horses have the right of way.
At the dawn of the nuclear age in the early 1950s, the U.S. government acquired over 300 acres of land outside of Aiken and relocated thousands of residents to build the Savannah River Plant to produce nuclear materials for the hydrogen bomb. The Savannah River Site Museum in downtown is worth a visit to understand this time of world tension and production of nuclear materials.
For more information on Aiken, go to www.VisitAikenSC.com.