From Peanuts to Palm Trees: A Plant Lover’s Guide to Charleston

Photos by Ryan Benoit

Over the past several weeks, Chantal and I have been operating the Horticult from opposite coasts. This year I performed my annual training for the Naval Reserves in Charleston, South Carolina — a.k.a. Lowcountry, a.k.a. the Holy City, a.k.a. Chas — a complete shift from SoCal in so many ways. But also strikingly similar! Charleston,  like San Diego, operates at a laidback frequency amid buzzing arts, culture, food and beer scenes. Both cities have coastal communities shared by diehard locals and enthusiastic tourists.

Across ten afternoons and evenings — plus a weekend joined by my parents and brother — I was determined to conquer the plant scene and make Charleston feel like home. That meant seeking out the local plant hotspots (yes, that is a thing!) in an unfamiliar city, one rich in American and botanical history. Walking or driving through the streets takes one back almost 350 years to a city founded in 1670.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Plant-walking Charleston in late June.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

A classic Southern magnolia brings the splendor to this busy intersection. Magnolia grandiflora, native to the region, seemed to be at almost every turn.

After driving by native magnolias trees towering over mansions and rubbernecking crepe myrtles, I noticed that Charleston, like S.D., is swarming with blooming trees and floral eye candy. I couldn’t reach for my fogged-up lens fast enough. (Tip for SoCal photographers in a steamy foreign climate: let your camera and lens temps equalize for 5-10 minutes outside before expecting to take a shot).

The muggy summer swelter might throw your camera off kilter, but multitudes of plants seem to be keen on it: notably ferns, Spanish moss, magnolias, crepe myrtles, hydrangeas, gardenias, camellias, peanut plants, sabal palms and coneflowers during my visit.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

I stayed at the all new Hilton Garden Inn located on the west side of the Charleston peninsula and overlooking Ashley Marina, about a five-minute drive to downtown.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Youthful crepe myrtles compliment Rainbow Row, the nation’s longest cluster of intact Georgian row houses. The oldest houses were built in 1680 and are located on East Bay Street, just south of the French Quarter.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Looking west on Vendue Wharf pier toward Waterfront Park. This is a great place to take in sweeping views of marsh grasses along the Cooper River.

Charles Towne played host to key battles in the American Revolution (1776-1783), and after France helped America defeat England, it became a destination for plant exploration. In 1875 King Louis XVI commissioned plant explorer and naturalist André Michaux to establish a royal garden in the Americas. Michaux (accompanied by young rock-star botanist Pierre-Saul Saunier) found his way to newly renamed Charleston and established a second French royal garden in America, on a 111-acre plot very near to where my plane landed in North Charleston.

Michaux introduced the now-iconic camellias, crape myrtles, mimosa, parasol tree, ginkgo and tea plants to this area, coinciding with the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. All these species are still thriving today.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

You can’t miss these two majestic ginkgo trees on lower King Street in front of the Charleston Library Society. These two ginkgoes were a gift from local florist Fred Aichele, and were planted by the Garden Club of Charleston in 1922.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is a native air plant, normally seen dripping down from live oaks, swamp cypress and crepe myrtles. (Hey, circulation is everything!) This epiphyte also seems to take well to old gingkoes.

Charleston also hosted the first shots fired in the American Civil War in 1861, when Confederate forces bombarded the Union-controlled Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay. But for this Yankee, that fact seems like distant history while walking the streets of America’s “most polite and hospitable city.” (According to Southern Living.)

Here are my plant lover’s top 10 recommendations, gathered after 12 days of Charleston travels:

1. Visit a plant-tation. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in particular. This historic garden is a must-see. Established in 1670 by the Drayton family, this is the oldest romantic garden in the United States, and is the oldest public gardens in the United States. The plantation’s website and Facebook page keep you up-to-date year-round on what’s blooming. My parents and I got lost for four hours on a self-guided tour along winding paths along romantic gardens with sweeping views of river marshlands, ricefields and lakes. We even took a self-guided swamp tour.  The best time to visit? Probably the fall, when the camellias are known to explode along the inland shady paths of the  estate. (Stay tuned for a full photo tour of the plantation.)

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
3550 Ashley River Road
Charleston, SC 29414

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

The plantation house.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Coneflowers and live oaks line the path along the Ashley River.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

On a hot summer day in Charleston, these winding paths offer shady refuge. In the fall, the paths explode with camellia blooms.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Tupelo trees (Nyssa aquatica) are one of the rare trees that can grow directly in water. That’s water at the base completely covered over by duckweed, a common sight throughout the Audubon swamp garden.

2. Try boiled peanuts…again. These need to be eaten fresh and warm to get the true experience. They shouldn’t be crunchy or slimy. The latter is what commonly turns people off from these polarizing peanuts.

Boiled peanuts originated in South America but went rampant in West Africa and later were brought to South Carolina by slaves. A good history here. Peanuts are boiled while still “green” (white, actually, just beginning to ripen) and fresh out of the ground. They are not yet quite ready for baking, and boiling in a salty brine is really the only option at this stage.

We passed several roadside stops selling boiled peanuts fresh and hot.  We made an abrupt u-turn, however, after passing Timbo’s bright orange brick-mounted Airstream on our way back from Magnolia plantation. These warm peanuts did not disappoint! The challenge is eating them while driving as they tend to squirt warm sticky water down your arms! My impressions: they tasted like well-seasoned mashed potatoes, minus all the carbs, and quite addictive. Boiled peanuts are actually the state’s official snack…and yes, the state has an official snack.

Timbo’s Hot Boiled Peanuts
2484 Ashley River Road
Charleston, SC 29414

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Timbo’s Hot Boiled Peanuts on Ashley River Road is the perfect place to experience South Carolina’s official snack.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

We even got to meet the legendary Timbo himself. We took a bag of the Cajun, ham and regular for a grand total of $8.50. Favorite: the ham.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Not sure it’s possible to find a fresher boiled peanut…

3. Visit a Southern farmers market. Where else can you get such a big slice of Lowcountry’s farm, food, and art scene on a Saturday morning? Located at the historic Marion Square Park, we sampled local pecans and pickles and strolled past farm-fresh produce, all the while wishing our hotel room had a kitchen. This made the perfect stop to grab a bite to power up before our visit to Magnolia Plantation.

Charleston Farmers Market
Marion Square Park
Charleston, SC 29403

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Marion Square Park.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

The farmers market boasts participation of over 25 local farms and growers.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Sweetgrass baskets are an art form and make the perfect farmers market basket. The skill of weaving these intricate baskets came from Africa and continues to be cultivated in South Carolina. And they actually smell sweet!

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Call me a tourist, but I think I may have found the Best Pickles in Charleston. No, seriously — these pickles were the biz.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston farmers market is popular among locals and tourists.

Plant-Lovers-Guide-to-Charleston-ryanbenoitphoto-thehorticult-RMB_4495

Oh, okra…this is about as close as I can get. I just can’t acquire a taste for them, unlike with the boiled peanut.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

I loved these recycled historical window panes with embedded dried floral arrangements by local Charleston artists Beth Curry and Traci Coyler of Charleston Views. If you’d like one of your own (including custom orders) give them a call!

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

The food court area is a great place to eat local and fresh.

4. Get chummy with the native salt marsh grasses…by eating oysters.

I didn’t care for oysters before I visited Charleston. But with Charleston’s healthy and beautiful salt marshes and oyster reefs visible all along its coast, I had to give them another try. Besides, there really isn’t a better way for a plant-lover to feel more embedded in the salt marsh grasses than gulping down a locally harvested oyster. You could also harvest them yourself or get up close with a salt marsh tour.

Yes, there’s a multitude of places to eat oysters in this town, but I was intent on meeting up with our friend Brooks Reitz and trying out his new restaurant, Leon’s Fine Poultry and Oysters located in the North Central neighborhood. Co-owners Brooks and Tim Minks brought in Michael Rogers, New Orleans “oyster man” and six-time shucking champ, to train the staff before the May opening. After tasting Leon’s stellar char-grilled oysters, I am now a convert.

Another great oyster hall that we tried is the Ordinary. The Ordinary, a bit more formal than Leon’s, is located in the heart of downtown.

Leon’s Oyster Shop
698 King Street
Charleston, SC 29401

The Ordinary
544 King Street
Charleston, SC 29403

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

I took in sweeping views of salt marshes during a day trip to Mount Pleasant.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

The char-grilled oysters at Leon’s are prepared with lemon, parsley, parmesan and butter. These were my gateway oysters.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Opened in a converted auto body garage, Leon’s Oyster Shop cultivates a stylish but laidback vibe.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

For a more formal oyster setting, we tried The Ordinary. Although I’m still not a raw oyster fanatic, I did enjoy sharing this platter.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Be sure to make reservations; seats at The Ordinary are in constant demand.

5. Eat outside with plants.

Strolling through downtown Charleston, I found plenty of outdoor dining options and open-air restaurants. Many of the restaurants in the French Quarter area had sidewalk seating, which seamed a bit more comfortable and popular in the evenings. (Summer days average in the upper 80s to mid-90s — toasty if you’re on an unshaded patio.) When I travel, I find myself often trying to find outdoor seating. Maybe I just subconsciously enjoy eating or drinking among the plants.

If we’re of like minds, here are some places to try out:

Taco Boy
217 Huger St
Charleston, SC 29403

Leon’s Oyster Shop

Edmund’s Oast
1081 Morrison Dr 
Charleston, SC 29403

Belgian Gelato
6 Vendue Range
Charleston, SC 29401

The Gin Joint
182 East Bay St

Charleston, SC 29401

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

For a moment, pulling up to Taco Boy made me feel like I was back in Old Town San Diego. I couldn’t help admiring the restaurant’s garden patio.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Back at Leon’s Poultry and Oyster Shop, I was impressed by their garden patio area enclosed by re-purposed steel tub planters.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Edmund’s Oast had the largest outdoor dining area that I saw during my visit.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

For dessert, Belgian Gelato serves up refreshing ice cream overlooking a lush sidewalk. I grabbed a salted-caramel gelato and took it for a quick stroll down the adjacent live-oak shaded promenade and gardens of the award-winning Charleston Waterfront Park.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

The Gin Joint is a must if you like cocktails and clever snacks (see below). I enjoyed its intimate garden courtyard at night; one of its trees made me feel right at home.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

The Smoking Gun: Rye whiskey, lapsang souchong, Ramazotti, Campari and Black Strap Rum. For food, I ordered the beef jerky (served on a plate) and the soft pretzels with Sriracha cheese sauce and Bulls Bay salt.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

I spent my last night in Charleston sitting below that loquat tree sipping on a Smoking Gun and staring at a crepe myrtle. Cheers to that!

6.The brew scene.

By brew, I mean coffee and beer. Maybe I’m straying a bit, but both come from plants.  There’s nothing that makes me feel more at home than finding a great coffee shop in an unfamiliar city. Call me a snob, but in the morning I like my Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora beans complex, lightly roasted, and served straight up. I use the siphon brew method at home, but on the road I try to find cafes that brew using pour-over methods. If the shop is taking this much time to pour, you know the bean and roast are going to be good. (Starbucks is always a last, last resort.) Some of the locals I talked to recommended Black Tap coffee, and it turned out to be exactly the coffee shop I was looking for. Black Tap coffee brews their coffee to order using pour-over Kalita Wave drippers. It takes about three or four minutes to make, but is well worth the wait. I became a big fan of their Counter Culture Coffee, specifically their Idido coorperative roast from Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia. Another good coffee shop I discovered in the downtown area was Kudu coffee. My favorite part about this coffee shop? It serves local craft beer in the evening, and it’s got a casual garden patio to boot!

Black Tap Coffee
70½ Beaufain Street

Charleston, SC

Kudu Coffee
4 Vanderhorst Street
Charleston, SC

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

I took this brew to go. Black Tap coffee brews all of their coffee to order using Kalita wave drippers.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

And you may have thought growlers were only used for craft beer.

And then there’s the craft beers.  It wasn’t hard to hop right into the malted barley and wheat scene and taste local craft brews from Holy City Brewing, Edmund’s Oast, Freehouse Brewing and Coast Brewing Company. Freehouse and Holy City beers seemed to be the most popular local beers on tap. The most memorable beer that I tried was the refreshing Freehouse Brewery’s Folly’s Pride grapefruit summer session ale that I enjoyed with those char-grilled oysters. Edmund’s Oast, a ten-minute drive from downtown, had the largest selection of craft beers on tap that I experienced during my visit. Closer to downtown and the waterfront, I enjoyed Closed For Business and the Griffon. The latter also turned out to be one of the best places to catch a game while eating out-of-this-world fish and chips.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

It’s order by number at Edmund’s Oast. At any given time there are roughly 40 beers on tap from local breweries to Stone Brewing in San Diego.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

I’m very content with the White Thai from Westbrook Brewing company in Mount Pleasant, just outside of Charleston.

 

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Closed For Business was a great place for sitting down and working on my laptop… blogging actually. I felt at home blogging and sipping on a local saison (Freehouse Ashley Farmhouse Ale in this case). Bring a battery though, outlets are sparse, but then again, this isn’t Starbucks.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

The Griffon’s porch is shaded by crepe myrtles.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

The Griffon is a great sports bar with a bountiful selection of craft beers. We caught the Portugal-USA game; behold the reaction to Team USA’s second goal. (Let’s just say things got very quiet during the last five seconds…)

7. Shop Charleston.

Downtown (King Street) and the French Quarter are the most dense with shopping options. I had only three items on my list: a floral shirt, loafers, and a gift for my wife (never forget the last when you are away for two weeks) — preferably a botanical bauble of some sort.

Paydirt! Here’s where I shopped:

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Next door to Belgian Gelato you’ll find Indigo, which carries jewelry and crafts from local artists.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

I zeroed in on Shari Dixon’s dusty miller necklace (yes, with an actual leaf inside), and ended up buying the ring version for Chantal.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

I was blown away by the selection of honey varietals at Savannah Bee Company. This is the company’s first store outside of Savannah. They also have an online store.

8. Go to Sullivan’s Beach.

The consensus of my local coworkers was that if I visited just one beach, it should be Sullivan’s. (They also told me that if I was ten years younger, they would have recommended Folly’s Beach instead.) So after Magnolia Plantation, my parents and I ventured across the Cooper River to Sullivan’s Island in Mount Pleasant. Station 18 at Sullivan’s Beach, specifically. The street parking was a breeze and we entered the beach through a tree tunnel. Five minutes after parking, we were nestled among the sea oats (Uniola paniculata) on this distinctively narrow beach.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

I enjoyed the beach with my parents, who took the four-hour drive down from Wilmington, North Carolina.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Sea oats (Uniola paniculata).

9. Plant-walk the city.

Bring your camera and just shoot. Shoot some Spanish moss draping off of a live-oak in front of Queen Anne-style houses or photograph ferns growing out of a sewer (!). Whether it’s a magnolia summer bloom, the azaleas of the late winter, or camellias of the spring and fall, Charleston is constantly bursting with color.

And look out for those Sabal palmettos, the state tree. Also known as cabbage palms, the trees prefer poorly drained soils, and will thrive near freshwater and brackish wetlands — kind of like oysters…

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

The infamous crepe myrtle.

planter in Charleston

The sidewalk planters were head-turners.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

And did we mention that Charleston is known for its lively window planter boxes?

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

I was inspired by this unintentional vertical garden.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Where ferns are sent for bad behavior!

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

A sabal palmetto in bloom on King Street.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Also known as cabbage palm, the sabal palm is the South Carolina state tree.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

Hmm, maybe next visit.

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

 

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

A plant lover's guide to Charleston, South Carolina

10. Plan a return trip!

I had only 12 days in Charleston this time around — and plan on returning with Chantal someday! What are your favorite spots in the Holy City?

–TH

 

  • Leslie C.

    Next time you are there, go see the good folks at Abide A While Garden Center in Mount Pleasant. A family-owned business for over fifty years, it’s a great place to find anything garden-related or get a few tips from the knowledgeable staff. I know…I used to work there!

    • Great tip, Leslie — thank you! Abide-A-While looks like a dream. The next time we’re in Charleston, we will be making a beeline.

  • Jan Murray

    Two words, Live Oaks. Next time in town check out the Angel Oak, a 400-500 year old live oak and probably one of the best specimens you will find anywhere.