Homegrown trees and plants in the Lowcountry
It’s not a stretch to think that the beloved peach is an indigenous fruit in South Carolina and the Lowcountry.
Story by Dean Rowland
After all, South Carolina is second in the nation in its production, it’s our official state fruit, and we produce three times more of the luscious, deciduous fruit than Georgia, the “Peach State.”
Unfortunately, for those clinging to the notion that it’s indigenous to South Carolina, it’s not…but it is native or at least naturalized. The peach originated in China more than 4,000 years ago and didn’t arrive here until the Spanish explorers brought bushels of them in the 1500s. When colonists arrived in the Palmetto State Lowcountry in 1670, Native Americans already were growing peaches. But they had depended upon indigenous plants and trees for centuries before the peach arrived to supplement their diets.
Botanists would agree that peaches here are “native,” not “indigenous,” which means they were nurtured by nature, not man’s influence. Some would go so far as to say that peaches are “naturalized,” which means they were introduced by man to the Lowcountry in the last several hundred years and have adapted to our landscape and climate.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “native” as a plant or tree that lives or grows naturally in a particular region without direct or indirect human intervention.
So that’s cleared up…sort of. Whether native or naturalized, suffice to say if a certain plant has been in the Lowcountry long enough, it can be called native or naturalized without much of an argument. Here’s a handful of native Lowcountry trees and plants that are authentic staples in our landscape:
Live oak This majestic salt-tolerant white oak rightfully occupies its iconic status as the quintessential symbol of the Lowcountry. Resurrection ferns cling to their enormous branches, from which Spanish moss, a flowering plant, dramatically hangs. They loom 40 to 60 feet high, have a canopy more than 100 feet wide and a life span of about 150 years. They also keep local wildlife nourished with their acorn production and provide habitat for many native birds.
Palmetto and Saw Palmetto Palms The palmetto, South Carolina’s state tree, is a slow grower but at maturity can grow 50 to 80 feet high. Local residents find the palmetto everywhere because of its ability to adapt to a variety of different environments. In the summer, it produces fragrant flowers that attract a variety of pollinators. After pollination, it produces a nutritious fruit and berries that feed a host of native wildlife species. Similar to the palmetto, the saw palm also produces berries from its flower after pollination, but it rarely reaches taller than 10 feet. The most distinguishable feature of this “understory” species is its hacksaw-shaped teeth that connects the frond to the underground stem.
Sweet Gum This ubiquitous tree dominates the forest understory and provides food and shelter for wildlife. The sweet sap attracts woodpeckers and can reach 60 feet on the island. The five-lobe leaf turns bright yellow in autumn before falling off. Two seeds are found in the small flowers after pollination and provide a tasty snack for migratory songbirds.
Loblolly Pine This highly adaptive tree can tower 80 feet high in wet and dry soils. It produces abundant seeds in cones covered with short spines that help feed local wildlife while white-tailed deer nibble on the needles and twigs.
Sea Oats Grown from underground stems, this dominant shoreline plant with leaves up to 2 feet long lends a critical component of the sand dune ecosystem, trapping wind-blown sand to anchor and build new dune systems. They also are a source of food for many types of wildlife.
Wax Myrtle Its resistance to disease and tolerance to drought and deer make it a staple in Lowcountry landscapes and as an understory in our maritime forests. Its small, waxy berries are on the menu for migratory birds, and its branches hang over the banks of lagoons and other water sources, offering safe nesting habitats for wading birds.
Indigo The fragrant purple and orange flowers of this native deciduous plant attracts three types of butterflies and offers a place for them to lay their eggs. Bees and other pollinating insects gravitate to this shrub in large numbers. It can reach 8 feet in height.
Georgia Mint This rare Lowcountry native evergreen shrub grows up to 2 feet, and bees and butterflies love to pollinate its flowers. Its edible aromatic foliage converts easily in a cup of tea, and it’s often used for hedging in local herb gardens.
Yellow Jessamine The state flower of South Carolina showboats with its strong scent and vibrant yellow flowers in late winter and early spring. The toxic twisting vine can grow to 19 feet and is often placed over arbors or to cover walls. Its sweet nectar also attracts a range of pollinators.