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Every Plant Has Its Own Story

Education, Landscape

At Drayton Hall on Sunday, May 1, 2011, fourteen of us lucky nature-loving souls tried to keep up with renowned botanist and professor emeritus from the Citadel, Dr. Richard Porcher.  Author or co-author of Lowcountry: The Natural Landscape, A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina, The Story of Sea Island Cotton, an upcoming book on South Carolina rice culture, and numerous other publications, Dr. Porcher is an energetic, amusing and informative field guide.  Before setting off at a brisk pace across Drayton Hall’s front lawn toward the marsh, he paused to point his long worn walking stick approvingly at the new native plants landscaping going in around the museum shop area.  We hurried to catch up as he pointed and talked, without slowing his stride, about the honey locust tree directly beside Drayton Hall itself: the mother tree went down in Hurricane Hugo, this is a grown root sprout, is it disturbing an archaeological site, should it be saved, and more.  Dr. Porcher did linger a second to announce, “Every plant has its own story!”  Throughout the afternoon he made it clear it was our job to learn what those stories are.

Entering the Marsh Walk, Dr. Porcher had us stroke the barbed seeds of needle grass to understand the meaning of its name and to identify it correctly.  In midstride, he directed his walking stick at a yaupon holly telling us this native was the source of an American Indian caffeinated tea, but only if you used the youngest leaves and avoided the berries.  Otherwise, you would find out why its botanical name is Ilex vomitoria.  With another swing of his walking stick, our attention was focused on a popcorn or Chinese tallow tree, a malicious invader of native wetlands that he hopes to see eradicated from the property.  At a short stop on the bridge over the rice trunk gate, Dr. Porcher enthusiastically explained the tidal flow rice flooding system.  Looking at the remnants of the reservoir pond, we turned back to find ourselves scurrying to get close to Dr. Porcher who was yards ahead saying something about the Cherokee rose at the other end of his walking stick.  It may be the state flower of Georgia, but the Cherokee rose is an eighteenth century import from China.  We were reminded, “Every plant has its own story.” 

We marched efficiently on through the marsh learning how to distinguish a dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) from an infant South Carolina state tree palmetto (Sabal major):  the state tree has thin filaments curling off the edges of the leaves.  Dr. Porcher’s walking stick pointed accusingly at a large bush of Elaeagnus and then another and another.  The plant is a severely invasive Asian import that Drayton Hall’s grounds staff is working hard to eliminate, but it is nearly impossible to stop.  With pleasure, he turned his attention to a native swamp dogwood, then a buckeye and a red cedar.  Standing on the boardwalk, we were captivated by his proposed plan for a nature trail winding through the hundreds of acres around Drayton Hall.  Dr. Porcher animatedly described how the marsh, the Ashley River, the cultivated rice terrain, the phosphate mining remains, the vestiges of the manicured landscape, the layers of history, the plants and, of course, their stories would all fit into this ambitious design.

At the exit from the Marsh Walk and reluctant to have our unique afternoon outing end, we lingered and chatted.  The next thing we knewDr. Porcher was off again aiming his walking stick up into the clump of big trees beside the pond calling out to us, “Is this a native red mulberry or an imported white mulberry?”  Seeing our lack of mulberry knowledge, he went on to explain the difference between the two types and, in an aside, discused the ill-fated American silk industry.  We paid close attention because, as Dr. Porcher mentioned again, “Every plant has its own story.”

-Yvette Richardson Guy,  former adjunct professor of architecture history at the College of Charleston,  Dorchester County Master Gardener,   and Historical Interpreter at Drayton Hall.