The Magazine of South Carolina

Garden of Delight

Riverbanks Zoo's New Botanical Garden

by Joey Frazier


It's just a beautiful place to be," says Mary Leverette. She's talking about Columbia's newest attraction, the formal walled garden and wooded trails at Riverbanks Zoological Park and Botanical Garden, where she is director of public services.

A walk bridge spanning the Saluda River offers a view of the rapids on one side and still waters on the other, where turtles and otters are likely to be playing. History buffs will want to look for the abutments of a bridge burned by Confederates to keep Sherman out of the capital.

Once you cross the river, you can take a shuttle bus to the visitors center at the top of the hill. Here you will find the jewel of the project: a walled formal garden with wonderful fountains, architecture and plants of every kind.

At the opposite end of the garden from the visitors center, you enter the wooded trail. Here you can stroll through a native hardwood forest. Look closely and you might spy songbirds or squirrels in the low-hanging limbs. Constant shade offers relief on hot Carolina afternoons. In the middle of the trail is the Saluda Factory ruins, once a water-powered mill. The second half of the trail takes you back to the walk bridge.

"What's unusual to me is how very peaceful and restful this place can be, even when it's busy," Leverette says. "There are many nooks and crannies, if you take time and slow down."

That's the way to really enjoy the garden - slowly. There is so much to see. Leverette says they now realize the wooded trails are almost as popular as the walled garden. They really ended up with two unique attractions for families to enjoy.

Both the walled garden and the Saluda factory ruins are wheelchair-accessible from the shuttle bus stops, although the steep trail with steps from the walled garden to the factory ruins is not. Refreshment carts usually are available in the walled garden. A gift shop and cafe are in the visitors center.

When the gardens opened, Riverbanks attendance jumped by 55 percent. After the first few weeks, attendance still was up by 33 percent. Then came the dog days of summer, with oppres-sive heat and humidity. Surprisingly, visitors endured, and atten-dance remains above normal. Zoo officials expect visitation to increase again as the weather becomes more tolerable.

"As autumn comes and winter sets in, I think it will be a lovely place," Leverette says. The gardens and trails will change with the seasons as summer annuals are removed and winter plants are put in their place. As the leaves fall, the trails will open up, revealing different views of the forest and factory ruins. The staff already are planning a rose garden.

Seasonal changes, Leverette says, "will give groups a reason to come back more often."


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