SUMTER, S.C. - Whether one is weary from traveling the interstate highways running north to south, or from the highway of life, one can find a moment of serenity by visiting Swan Lake Iris Gardens in Sumter, S.C.
"A person would have to dislike nature to not like this place," Sumter resident Florence Nedreski, who visits the gardens several times a year, said. "Everyone who we've brought here loves it."
Indeed, as one enters the area past the massive wrought-iron gates, it seems as if the frenzied hustle and bustle of the world falls away and one has no choice but to slow down and bask in the graceful atmosphere of the gardens.
Photo by David Prenatt
The Butterfly Gardens at Swan Lake Iris Gardens in Sumter, S.C., offer a dazzling array of flowers attractive to butterflies as well as information for visitors to use to help preserve and protect various species of butterflies.
Perhaps it's the swans themselves who populate the gardens. This is the only place in the United States where all eight known species of swans are gathered. As they swim in the ponds, preen themselves amid the cypress roots, or wander among visitors, their grace and beauty brings a quiet calm to one's heart. Here one can meet firsthand the Royal White Mute, the Black-Necked, the Coscoroba, the Whooper, the Trumpeter, the Whistler, the Black Australian and the Bewick Swans.
Perhaps it's the irises that blossom with such splendor in spring. Along with dozens of other flowers, more than 120 varieties blooming from mid-May until June dazzle the visitor with their elegance. When one learns their very existence there was a fortunate accident - Sumter businessman Hamilton Carr Bland discarded the original bulbs in what was then swampland in 1927 after they failed to thrive in his home garden - one comes to believe there may have been a higher power at work in the creation of these gardens.
Perhaps it's the stately cypress trees, rising from the water like brooding giants. From their pyramid-like trunks to the dozens of roots jutting from the ground like stalagmites, they give an ancient feel to the gardens - one beyond the measure of chronological time.
Whatever the cause, the effect is undeniable.
Once through the gate, one finds the busyness and cares of daily life have been left behind. There are no more highways, no more duties to be performed. For the next few hours at least, there is only a serene walk through a garden that is always in bloom.
The gardens began as a mistake. Bland was developing 30 acres of swampland as a private fishing retreat. At the same time, he was trying and failing to inculcate the Japanese Iris into the landscape of his home. After several unsuccessful attempts and consultation with horticulturists as far away as New York, Bland abandoned the idea and ordered the bulbs dug up and thrown into the swamp. The next year they bloomed in vibrant colors. Astounded at the "mistake," Bland then developed the site into a botanical garden.
In 1938, A.T. Heath, Sr., deeded adjacent acreage on the north side of Liberty Street to the city of Sumter with the provision that Bland develop this area into a garden as well. Bland donated his portion to the city in 1949, forming the 120 acres that now form the park. The two gardens are joined by the McDuffie overpass, named for the family that donated it in 1994. And most recently, the Heath family donated the Heath Pavilion in 1998.
Tourists come from far and wide to visit the gardens, but the local residents cherish them as well. "Local residents come often to the gardens. Some people come here to walk every morning," Nedreski said. "Spring is my favorite time to come. Everything bloomed so early this year."
Artists take advantage of the beauty of the gardens as well, according to Nedreski.
"There are many paintings and sketches of Swan Lake Iris Gardens," she said. "You see them in doctor's offices and many places around Sumter."
Whether local or tourist, the gardens offer each visitor a unique experience. For instance, in the butterfly garden, each plant attracts and supports various butterflies. Visitors can learn to identify both butterflies and caterpillars with the hope they will plant these flowers in their own gardens.
The chocolate garden is designed for the young-at-heart, including edible plants such as chocolate cherry tomatoes, chocolate corn and chocolate mini bell peppers, as well as plants that smell "chocolaty," such as chocolate mint, chocolate daisy and chocolate cosmos.
The chocolate garden is part of the larger "sensory" gardens, which include a Braille Garden. Here the plants are very tactile, and each plaque includes a description written in Braille.
If this were not enough reason to visit Swan Lake Iris Gardens, it is also a perfect place to be married. A Victorian gazebo amid stately cypress trees provides just the place to exchange marriage vows. And the visitor's center banquet area can seat up to 125 guests, while the Heath Pavilion can accommodate 210.
Do the gardens have a drawback?
"I always take too many pictures when I'm here," Nedreski said. "My husband teases me that the thing we really need is more pictures from Swan Lake Iris Gardens. But it's always different and beautiful. Christmas is spectacular. So it's impossible to come and not want to take pictures. My favorite one is of my husband and grandchildren looking at the turtles that were swimming under the bridge."
"Away ... I'd rather sail away
Like a swan that's here and gone" - Paul Simon