Each of my walking tours of historic Charleston includes passing St. Michael’s Anglican Church in the famous South of Broad area. This structure, finished 9 years before Ludwig von Beethoven was born, has survived artillery fire during the Revolution and the Civil War, as well as earthquakes, hurricanes and fires. Ironically, some of its worst damage came on St. Michael’s Day, September 29th, 1938, when a tornado sent the slate rood heavenward. The joke since then is that it took God more than a century to get into the church, and only did so when St. Michael lifted the roof.
Early September to early October is alligator hunting season in coastal South Carolina. The number of alligators removed is closely regulated by state permit, and is done only because the number of alligators has become unmanageable in some areas. Overpopulation at certain sizes not only creates excessive predation of younger animals, and the large numbers contributes to hungry alligators roaming into populated areas looking for food, creating potential danger.
They are commonly misnamed, misidentified, mischaracterized, misinterpreted and misunderstood, with a delicate nature that was nonetheless deadly to ferocious creatures and armies of Alexander the Great, while offering a twist in their tale that baffled the brains behind the world’s most celebrated sleuth. They are the Jasmines or Jessamines of South Carolina – commonly known as Yellow Jasmine and Confederate Jasmine – which neither are biologically. True Jasmine is in the Olive family, composed of about 200 species not native to the United States, and mostly from Eurasia, where the term originated from the Persian “Yasamin”. Our native state flower, the Yellow Jasmine, is scientifically Gelsemium Sempervirens (Evergreen Jasmine), also known as Evening Trumpet Flower. Its difference from authentic Jasmine is minimal to the point of splitting hairs, which is appropriate considering it has also been called Poor Man’s Rope, from the historic practice of splitting and tripping vines to twist into long, powerful strands. This plant so appealing to the eye is not as welcome in other body parts, however, containing potentially toxic strychnine alkaloids that can be deadly to certain animals, from honey bees who may gather its nectar, to livestock that may chew on its leaves. It is still sold in the form of homeopathic pellets on Amazon, having been used for many years as an alternative for anxiety, perhaps because after taking it, you wouldn’t be around to get nervous jitters anymore. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used it regularly to treat “a persistent neuralgia” while creating his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, only to discover that large doses led to convulsions, severe headaches and paralysis. Our Confederate Jasmine is not only not Jasmine, it ain’t Confederate either, at least not in the American sense, but is a plant, when first genetically identified in the late 19th century, was commonly found in what was the Federated Malay States. Scientifically Trachelospermum Jasminoides, which translates as “neck seed jasmine-like” based on the shape of seeds and flowers, is in the Apocynaceae family of plants, which is even deadlier than the Gelsemium. The name Apocynum is from Greek, meaning “dog away”, from the practice of using it to kill off wild four-leggers in ancient times. It contains cardiac glycosides that will adversely affect the cardio, neuro, and gastro systems of animals and humans, and was used to coat poison arrows fired at Alexander the Great’s army during battles in India. It is also known as Star Jasmine and Trader’s Compass for the flower’s pointed shape, and has been used as an emergency remedy for heart failure because it greatly intensifies the rate of contractions. Both of our Jasmines are also often confused with honeysuckle, which is in still another family of vines called Caprifoliaceae, and unlike the other two, is deciduous, not evergreen.
Each day on my walking tours, we go by the great Catholic Cathedral on Broad Street, which is the seat of the Diocese of Charleston that once covered three states and more than 140,000 square miles. There were few practicing Catholics in the Charleston area when Pope Pius VIII created the Diocese of the Carolinas and Georgia, and installed Irish-born John England as the first bishop. Bishop England quickly inspired lay people with his insistence on a diocese that was built on collegiality, with all parishes given a degree of independence and input. Bishop England calmed fears among anti-Catholic Protestants with his remarkable gift of oratory, speaking before Congress in 1826 to reaffirm the “distinct and separate” nature of Catholic dogma as not being a threat to the authority of American governing bodies. Bishop England built a diocese that consisted of three priests and a few hundred congregants to one of the most vibrant Catholic areas in America by his death in 1844, and the grand Cathedral of St. John and St. Finbar was built in 1853 as a tribute and a testimonial to his work.
This is a picture of the original South Carolina Palmetto Flag, created in 1861 and flown over the State Capitol in Columbia. When Sherman’s troops torched that city and terrorized its inhabitants in 1865, an Iowa regiment took down the flag and carried it home as a trophy of war. Today it remains in the hands of the Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines, and although I’ve sent several messages requesting that they return it to South Carolina, they refuse, citing some nonsense about collections rules. This historic flag shows the true hypocrisy of the entire Union campaign against the South, as they have always claimed that it was a fight to “restore the Union”. If indeed that were true, the restored state of South Carolina should have its state flag restored. The fact that it has not been returned simply shows what the Union fight was really about in the 1860’s – a war of conquest.
After people have joined me on walking tours of historic Charleston, they often ask for suggestions for other parts of the city to visit. I always include the Ansonborough area as a scenic walk. Just north of the busy city market, Ansonborough is very quiet and serene and filled with wonderful architecture and gardens. This area was largely burned in the fire of 1838, and afterward, the city offered low-interest “fire loans” as a mean of rebuilding. As a result the Ansonborough neighborhood is largely made up of 1830’s and 1840’s construction, which has a distinctive appeal.
One of the very unusual plants found in Charleston gardens is the Mahonia, also known as Oregon Grape. This is primarily a shade plant, and adds quite a luster to scenic and historic locations in old Charleston such as the Garden Walk between King and Archdale streets. The plant was discovered by a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and it was named for him, and the fact that it was found in the Oregon territory makes it the state flower there. Most notable for spiny leaves and succulent purple drupes, the Mahonia is not a plant soon forgotten.
Visitors to Charleston who join my walking tours of the historic city are enjoying the first blooms of the Magnolia Grandiflora, or Southern Magnolia. These grand trees add greatly to scenic gardens and houses around our coastal city, and the blooms have a subtle, but distinctive aroma reminiscent of linen. The big white blooms are often used as centerpieces in historic houses, featuring their large, puffy white petals and colorful interior carpels. It is a wonderful experience to press the face into a fresh Magnolia bloom and enjoy its fresh fragrance.
Here is a visitor who came into my garden today, our state butterfly, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. The species is common throughout the Southeast, and is one of the most eye-catching butterflies, not only because of its vibrant color, but the fact that it is typically much larger than most other butterflies that live in or migrate through this area. This particular creature had a wing span of nearly 6 inches, and when it first flew past my face, I though it was a bird. They love the plant Lantana, which does very well in gardens around Charleston.
I take my walking tours down to scenic White Point Garden, where we get to see the Keokuk gun on display – a cannon that fought for both sides during the Civil War. The gun was aboard the US warship Keokuk firing at Charleston’s defenders in Fort Sumter when it was sunk by cannon fire and sank in shallow water with its gun turrets exposed. Charleston engineers pried open the turrets and retrieved the gun, mounting it to fire back on the fleet it with which it came.