Time to spruce up Port Royal Plantation arboretum

It was in March of this year that friend Chris Rosenbach told me of a committee formed in Port Royal Plantation on Hilton Head Island to repair and restore the arboretum there to its original, intended state.

The 6.6-acre Port Royal Arboretum is an encyclopedia of Lowcountry native plants, with more then 145 varieties, seeded by nature and with additional plants added in 1970, 1975, 1990, 1995 and 2007. The 1995 plans included Victory, Civil War and butterfly gardens, catch basins, a water well and insect control. In July of 1999 Master Gardeners from Bluffton, Hilton Head, Moss Creek and Port Royal plantations worked together to clean up and restore the arboretum.

They might be called pioneers, those early Port Royal Plantation residents, who visualized the arboretum as a wildlife sanctuary and classroom. Their names are a short list of the island's environmentalists: Orion Hack, who seemed to know all there was to know about native plants; Alva Cunningham, who proceeded me as garden columnist for The Island Packet and with whom I received my first lessons in local plant culture; Carol Darcy; Joan Morris; and Eric Sellix.

It is that time again. Rosenbach and Stewart Buchanan working with Bill Burger, chairman of the plantation's Parks and Historical Sites Committee, spearheaded a new giant effort to repair and restore the arboretum. After the cleanup, massive pruning and cut back, identification signs are to be posted. But whom to discover and identify the plants?

One name comes to mind -- Daniel C. Payne. Payne arrived in Beaufort in 1991, his first job was at the Sandlapper Nursery in Bluffton, where we met. During the next years, we visited the garden of the celebrated plant grower, Frances Parker, in Beaufort as well as several public gardens.

Payne helped me identify the native plants that were popping up in my yard, and in the ensuing years he received his bachelor's degree in horticulture from the University of Georgia; his master's degree in plant and environmental science from Clemson University; started a business, Naturescapes on Coosaw Island; and, through his lectures and plant sales, became known to countless gardeners in the Lowcountry.

On May 2, Payne met with 20 volunteers to explore the arboretum. He identified 96 native plants that were marked with numbered stakes and tapes.

Photos and notes were taken, and Payne does not need to "think it over" -- his identification is fast and certain, his pronouncements not without humor. Cut out was the myrtle, it doesn't belong here, he said; nor does the bald cypress. If this is to be a nature preserve, stick to native plants.

Payne pointed out a stand of native cannas that now are on the state's designated "rare list," as is rough leaf Eupatorium (E. scabridum). Don't feel bad if you cut down that sand laurel oak, he said as he also gave the committee complete license to remove any and all water oaks.

The arboretum is host to the rare for this county Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine), the fun elephant's foot (Elephantopus tomentosus), the romantic hearts-a-burstin' (Euonymus americanus) and the Devil's walking stick (Aralia spinosa), which has been in demise on Hilton Head.

The first week of May gardeners were beginning to see the effect of what became a prolonged spring drought.

It was a surprise to see many moisture-loving plants unaffected; these include cinnamon fern, swamp tupelo, pond and bald cypress, swamp loosestrife, and Southern swamp dogwood.

When I spoke to Payne in mid-June, we'd still not had rain. He thought the arboretum plants would survive, and added that if the residents of Port Royal could stand the heat and smoke, the healthiest thing for survival would be an arboretum "burn."

Referring to the dry and hot spell we've been having, he said, "Without soil, moisture plants cannot take up calcium important to their survival, and the best fertilizer is a gardener's shadow."

The plantation committee is in the process of establishing a tax-exempt fund, under the umbrella of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, to allow tax credit contributions in support of our parks and historical sites.