Stiles Harper charms with sweet tea, orchid collection and love of Southern history

nancykwellard@gmail.comMay 22, 2014 

Stiles Harper Jr. had this to say about the epic, community viewing of his legendary orchid collection in April: "It was a nice day on the lawn."

What a triumph of understatement.

The delicate puffs and elaborate bouffants of his collection were moody, poetic, seductive and theatrical. They fragrantly rose to welcomed guests with a transformative scent.

The flowers are housed in greenhouses just a few steps from Harper's expansive Bluffton home at Palmetto Pointe. Everyone was invited to see the orchids, the lush grounds and to enjoy the view of the May River. More than 1,000 neighbors and friends from Lowcountry communities joined him that day.

"They all thanked me graciously," Harper said. "I enjoyed the greetings of so many friends and neighbors, some from my distant past. (It was) a treasure to remember them and their parents, pleasantly."

Harper, silver-haired and bearded, wears his customary collared shirt, summer-length shorts and sandals -- no matter the season. He speaks with the most distinctive South Carolina dialect -- the kind of pronunciation in which a word that has only one syllable arrives with a couple of extras when mouthed by Harper. Air becomes "ai-ea-rrrh" and please becomes "puh-lee-eeze," all in the most appealing way.

After his guests had flowed through the greenhouses, dropped by the hen houses and ventured out to the edge of his dock, they joined him on his deck for sweet tea served from his mother's glistening silver punch bowl.

Now would be the perfect time to point out that while Harper has an enormous collection of orchids -- more than 2,000, of which 70 percent are Phalaenopsis -- his greenhouses actually include plants he has been working with in his laboratory, focusing on seeds and tissue culture, hybridizing and dividing.

"You know," Harper said offhandedly, as he gestured to the greenhouses, "this is not just a collection ... rather, it is my life's work."

John Huffman, whose background started in chemistry and has evolved into a specialization on orchids, has joined Harper as greenhouse manager, assisting him in the care and maintenance of the greenhouses and in the production of plants.

Harper's earliest beginnings were in Estill. He is a son of Mr. and Mrs. Stiles Mikell Harper Sr.

"Daddy and Mr. Grover (Bowers) built and operated two grain elevators, a pair of cotton gins and three soybean oil extraction plants," Harper said. He also built the family home in Estill and a summer cottage in Bluffton in 1957. Though many changes have been made, Harper's current home at Palmetto Pointe on Oyster Street actually sits on the footprint of that first summer retreat.

A notable student and gifted musician, Harper studied piano and organ particularly, and starting at the age of 10 played pipe organ in a half dozen of the churches in Estill, Hardeeville and Bluffton.

"I had a life-altering moment in 1963 when Alf Ruff took me along on an errand in Newberry, where I met Bill Carter of Carter and Holmes Orchids," he said. "He handed me a Phalaenopsis, and my new direction was forged right then and there ... manna from heaven."

Harper went first to Wofford College and then to Clemson University, where he completed his studies in horticulture, and began his professional career in Savannah in 1969 working for a landscape architect. Four years later, he created Sandlapper Nursery, right here in Bluffton, and operated the growing business until 1983, when he retired to devote himself to his orchids and to his interests in gourmet cooking, music, farming, travel, history, reading and especially to his respect and appreciation for his family and its impact on him and even South Carolina history.

If Harper is known particularly for his work with orchids, he is known almost as impressively for his culinary passion, focus and expertise. He attended the world-renowned Dubrulle French Culinary School in Vancouver, British Columbia. His legendary kitchen is a technical marvel, and his collection of cookbooks fills two floors. He is famous for a fabulous gourmet dinner in his home or for food preparation for important expanded social events. Many know he can be depended upon for jillions of jars of artichoke relish, mango chutney or for his particularly mouthwatering shrimp salad -- or at the end of a long day, the most divine tomato sandwich.

Harper is unapologetically Southern, and dedicated to the importance of family, friends and tradition. His home reflects his leanings and it is, as are his greenhouses, filled to the brim with those things that matter to him. The family photographs; the portrait of Melvena, his nanny, who invited him to scramble his first egg; his great-grandfather's desk; his Hammond organ, a gift from his grandfather; botanical prints -- even an elephant tusk and tortoise shell. Important and highly polished silver and Oriental porcelain add layers of interest and reveal even more about him.

Harper comes with an important history and an impressive resume. What an impact he continues to make on our Lowcountry community. Missing from all of these designations are accounts of his philanthropy, generosity and concern for others. Branches of his orchids, pots of herbs, baskets of eggs, crocks of his soups and bags of his picked crab frequently appear on the doorsteps of those who may need his attentions. Harper and Huffman will attend the World Orchid Conference in Johannesburg in September.

Artist, musician, teacher and writer Nancy K. Wellard focuses on portraying and promoting the cultural arts, first in Los Angeles and, for close to 30 years, in the Lowcountry.

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