5-minute history: Tracing the fascinating history of flowers in the Lowcountry

Petals through the ages

Story by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is an owner and guide for Hilton Head History Tours and is the author of Backwater Frontier: Beaufort Country, SC at the Forefront of American History.

To the early explorers from the Atlantic countries of Europe, the coast of southeastern North America with its lush subtropical foliage was a wonderland of aromas and colors never encountered before. As early as 1524 an Italian captain, Govanni Verrazzano, hired by the King of France to find the Northwest Passage, cruised the coast from Nova Scotia to the Savannah River. As he approached Port Royal Sound, he noted in his log the heavy perfume of the cedars in the humid air, and French maps from that point on referred to the area immediately north of the Sound as the Forest of the Cedars.

Later expeditions would comment on the fragrance of the honeysuckle or the yellow jessamine vines as they made their way through the undergrowth in maritime forests. The entire region from the Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Mississippi River along the coast was known to the Spanish as La Florida, the place covered in flowers. From the time of the founding of Charles Towne Landing in 1670, British naturalists flocked to Carolina to study the alien forms of flora represented in the unparalleled biodiversity of the new province.

Mark Catesby spent from 1722-1726 traveling from Charles Towne south along the coast, cataloging and drawing the flora and fauna of the coastal plain as he lived among the Native Americans. From his journal, it is likely he spent several months in the Port Royal area on the sea islands. In 1764, John Bartram, a British botanist who had established gardens of native plants in the Philadelphia area, arrived in Charleston and was astounded by the species he found there. Inspired by Catesby’s work, he and his son, William, explored the coast south to the St. Johns River and planned a return trip to study the area more fully.

William Bartram returned in 1773 and for three years explored the coastal plain south of Charleston before he turned to the interior and became involved in an armed conflict early in the Revolutionary War. Of his time in the Port Royal area, he wrote vivid descriptions and drawings of native flora and of the alligators and snakes in the vicinity of his camp in his book, Travels, published in 1791.

“[When] from the shallows, alligators attack, the horrid noise of their closing jaws, their plunging amidst the broken banks of fish and rising with the prey some feet upright above the water, the floods of water and blood rushing out of their mouths, and the clouds of vapor issuing from their wide nostrils were truly frightening.”

The vegetation of the sea islands in the later 1700s was somewhat the same as it is today. The pocosins or bogs featured massive bald cypress trees, and the low, loamy wetlands areas favored the establishment of hardwoods such as swamp laurel oak and sweetgum; whereas, a mixture of pines and scrub oaks characterized the well-drained, coarse sands on the sloping terrain of the higher inland areas. The sandy soils of the coastal islands supported the South Atlantic inland maritime forest community with its mixture of palmetto, pine, live oak and deciduous hardwoods. Southern magnolia, American holly, dogwood, Black-eyed Susan, Carolina jessamine, wax myrtle and other floral varieties thrived from early times. Camellias, azaleas, and even Confederate jessamine are not native and were introduced, mainly from Asia, by settlers. 

Land use practices also affected the types and distribution of plant species on the sea islands. During the Antebellum era bald cypress-dominated swamps along the navigable inland portions of local rivers were cleared and planted in rice. Farming, livestock grazing and turpentine production largely accounted for the loss of longleaf-pine forest prior to 1900. More recently, storm-water drainage and mosquito remediation practices have further eroded the floral landscape.

But still, in some hidden and more remote forested areas of the larger sea islands, Hilton Head among them, you can find species thought to be extinct in the communities at large. On Hilton Head bald cypress trees and several species of native wild orchids grow in places protected from the ravages of development. Without these fragile conservatories and preserves, the remnants of once-thriving flora would soon disappear from our midst.

SAVANNAH, GEORGIA - October 25, 2021: Savannah is the oldest city in Georgia. From the historic architecture and churches to the parks and memorials, Savannah attracts millions of visitors annually.

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