The Magazine of South Carolina

Beauty in the Bog

Sumter's Iris Gardens & Swan Lake


Iris Gardens' Namesake

Swan Lake

Examining the flowers

Other flowers include azaleas


More colors

Youngsters especially enjoy the annual Iris Festival

Article by Jon Wongrey/Photos by R. Wongrey

Even before World War II, Sumter’s Iris Gardens and Swan Lake was one of the 10 most famous public gardens in the South. After the war, visiting Japanese proclaimed the irises more beautiful than their own. All thanks to Sumter’s Hamilton Carr Bland, who breathed life into a swamp he had intended to convert into a fish pond.

Bland, nicknamed "Hallie," was born in September 1880. As a child, he was afflicted with an illness that left him in a wheelchair until about age 17. Therapy later freed him from confinement, but he would need the aid of a cane for the better part of his life.

After becoming a successful car dealer in Sumter, his leisure time increased. He turned his interests to gardening and became skilled in his horticultural endeavors at his home on Hampton Avenue. He wanted something more. Something larger. The "Bog," as it was called, captured his interest. He laid plans to build his fish pond.

While reading an advertisement in a magazine praising the beauty of Japanese irises—a plant forbidden for export until the turn of the century—he ordered a small quantity to plant in his home garden. The plants arrived without instructions as to their care and planting. So he planted them as if they were the common German bearded irises, which were prolific and easy to grow. He did not know Japanese irises thrive in highly acidic, very wet peat soil . . . like the soil found in swamps such as the one Bland was carving in the "Bog."

The irises failed at his Hampton Avenue home. With winter approaching, he dug them up and dumped them into fill sites near the water’s edge at his developing pond.

When spring came, he was surprised that the plants not only had survived their banishment but were flourishing, with blossoms as large as dinner plates! He threw himself into their cultivation. Eventually, Bland became an expert on Japanese irises.

The redeemed "Bog" was now known as "Mr. Bland’s Garden." There, 25 varieties of irises eventually would grow and blossom, along with azaleas, dogwoods, camellias, Japanese magnolias, lilies, periwinkles, roses and sasanquas. These were added to the 14,000 annuals planted each spring.

Across the road from the garden lay the ruins of a stagnant grist mill site. This would change when, in 1938, another community-minded man named A.T. Heath bought the abandoned 75 acres. He deeded it to the city in 1949, with the understanding that Bland would develop the mill site as he had his own garden. The Bland and Heath gardens were dove-tailed to become Sumter’s Iris Gardens and Swan Lake.

The first swans were a pair of mutes from New York State and a pair of black Australian swans from Australia. Today, Sumter’s Iris Gardens and Swan Lake is the home of all the known species of swans in the world, including the Coscoroba, whooper, trumpeter, black Australian, whistler, royal white mute, black-necked swan and Bewick—altogether, about 80 species.

The gardens and lake receive about 7,000 visitors each week. Each May, the annual Iris Festival attracts about 30,000 people during a four-day celebration. A Fall Fiesta is held the third weekend of October. During the month of December, the park will be brightly lit with 100,000 Christmas lights.

For more information on Sumter’s Iris Gardens and Swan Lake, contact the Sumter Convention & Tourism Office; phone (803) 436-2640. There is no entrance fee to the gardens and lake.

Jon Wongrey is a freelance journalist in Sumter.


* CNA Construction, Inc., of Sumter

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