By Louisa Cameron
Colloquially called “The Pond,” the tidal lake in the heart of the lower western peninsula is neatly surrounded by a double ring of paved walks and landscaped with a plethora of carefully chosen plants and trees. On any given day, there are joggers, strollers, an occasional fisherman, dog walkers, and others enjoying the scenery, the benches, and the company of friends and family. Now well-maintained by volunteers, this city park was never neglected, but had little charm a few years ago. In 2016, the Charleston Parks Conservancy, a privately funded group, began a multi-million-dollar renovation.
In 2007, philanthropist Darla Moore founded the Charleston Parks Conservancy, an organization independent of the city that is dedicated to coordinating and educating a cadre of volunteers whose activities are centered on and around the city’s parks. This dynamic group’s program coordinator, horticulturist Jim Martin, feels that the Conservancy “is a reflection of the Charleston community as a whole and how that community relates to its public green spaces and to each other. The education of the community is of paramount importance. We work hard to make sure everyone benefits.”
The conservancy has a comprehensive website full of information on plants, instructional videos, and on all the worksites, play sites, educational opportunities and gatherings it sponsors. It works closely with the Horticultural Society, the Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society and has worked with a graduate program at the College of Charleston. Renovation, reinvention, restoration sand maintenance, along with fundraising, are all a part of their mission.
History of ‘the pond’
Charleston has always had enthusiastic support for her parks. The first Board of Park Commissioners was created in 1895, when only White Point Garden, also known as The Battery, Washington Square and Colonial Lake were owned by the city. Before 1760, there was a public garden for strolling and attending concerts near Broad Street along what is now Orange Street. In the 19th century, Charleston had its own small version of the famous English Vauxhall Gardens in an area bounded by King, Queen, and Broad Streets and there was an ice cream parlor at the entrance to a small garden further uptown. Inside this garden were 11 pavilions that provided shade and some privacy.
Colonial Lake, which got its name in 1881, a year before it was officially a park, was part of what has become a designated public area in 1768 when it was actually the beginning of a canal adjacent to Broad Street. The canal was never completed and for years it served as a sawmill pond, one of many on the peninsula. Different plans were proposed throughout the years for its use and nearby property use, but residents who overlooked this beautiful area prevailed to keep it intact.
Today, “the pond” as many still call it, is a thriving 10-acre city park. Completely enclosed by hardscape, it has a spillway and is tidal. It’s been a popular low-key fishing spot, model boat owners’ playground and walkers’ delight for many years. In 2016, spurred on by philanthropist Darla Moore, the Charleston Parks Conservancy renovated the park, which is bordered on all sides by busy city streets, making hardscape and water flow improvements and adding more than 20,000 plants. The cost totaled nearly $6 million. Local volunteers who love the area spend hundreds of hours each month keeping the plants well-tended and controlling litter.
On a late September walk around the lake I was delighted by the range of textures, colors, shapes, sizes, and variety of plants. There were grasses, sedges, groundcovers, trees large and small, evergreens, perennials and palms. Soft pink hibiscus was still in bud, brilliant purple ironweed was in full bloom, and orange gaillardia at ground level contrasted with the russet colors of knee and waist high grasses, also in bloom.
Landscape roses work well in the narrow beds along Rutledge Street, but the star of the show is the Peggy Martin rose, named for a well-known gardener whose property was inundated during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The property, located near New Orleans, La., remained under 20 feet of flood water for about two weeks. When the owners finally were able to return, they found that their tough but beautiful pink climbing rose, passed down through cuttings from friends and family, not only had survived, but putting out new growth.
Peggy Martin is planted at the base of the row of palmettos along the western side of Rutledge Avenue. It is a vigorous, disease resistant climber. It is also a remontant bloomer and is nearly thornless. This combination is perfect for its location and when the roses are in full bloom, they are a traffic-stopper. Peggy Martin has been cultivated by the Antique Rose Emporium and other nurseries, so it is readily available to the public.
The lake is an excellent place to take photographs of plants that are low maintenance, work well in restricted space and can survive beneath oak trees, withstand occasional salt-spray and light flooding and have colorful and textured foliage and blooms. Farfugium, nicknamed the tractor seat plant, thrives under the live oak at the corner of Ashley Avenue and Beaufain Street. It sends up tall sturdy stems with bright yellow flowers. Goldenrod, coreopsis, butterfly weed, and an invasive groundcover also sport yellow flowers. There are red cannas and cardinal flowers, giant white crinum lilies, iris, catmints and a cornucopia of other plants.
Jenks Farmer wrote a delightful article for “Garden Rant” about the park, with interesting historical facts and praise for those dedicated gardeners who keep Colonial Lake in top shape. Included is the multi-talented duo, Jim Martin and Kellen Goodell. The photographs are spectacular and there’s a link to a Garden Conservancy list of many of the plants. Fall is a wonderful time to get out to the parks and especially to Colonial Lake to see what’s going on there and to enjoy one of the city’s best gardens.
Louisa Huger Pringle Cameron is a native Charlestonian married to Price Cameron, a retired plastic surgeon. She is the author of three books on the gardens of Charleston, enjoys duplicate bridge and is a proud grandmother of three.