Bland’s Lovely Mistake

Swan Lake-Iris Gardens in Sumter – there are worse accidents to have.

It’s not far to Sumter. Just 66 miles, and it’ll only take about 90 minutes. Head toward Camden and make your way to Highway 378 E/US 76 E then make your way on to Sumter. Soon you’ll see the city give way to an accidental delight: Swan Lake-Iris Gardens.

The accidental garden, referred to by Southern Living as a “lovely mistake,” developed into one of the finest botanical gardens in the United States. It came about as an accident sure enough. In 1927, Hamilton Carr Bland, a local businessman, was developing 30 acres of swamp and landscaping his home with Japanese irises. But the irises just wouldn’t cooperate. After consulting horticulturists, Bland told his gardener to dig up the bulbs and throw them in the swamp. The next spring, the irises exploded into bloom. This “lovely mistake” developed into one of the country’s finest botanical gardens. It’s also the country’s only public park that features all species of swan.

You’ll see a lot of wildlife here. Black water studded by cypress knees hosts various waterfowl. The only public park in the United States to feature all eight swan species, Swan Lake-Iris Gardens is also home to some of the nation’s most intensive plantings of Japanese iris, which bloom yearly in mid to late May and last until the beginning of June. The garden also boasts many other floral attractions, including colorful camellias, azaleas, day lilies and Japanese magnolias. A Braille Trail enables the sight-impaired to enjoy the scents and sensations of the gardens.

Here too you’ll find a butterfly garden and a striking sculpture, Grainger McKoy’s “Recovery Wing.” McKoy’s dramatic 18-foot sculpture of stainless steel represents the wing of a pintail duck in flight. According to McKoy, “This wing position is considered the weakest in bird flight, yet in the artist’s eye is the position with the most beauty and grace. All of us are in recovery somewhere in our lives, as is our environment, of which Swan Lake is a unique part.”

You can walk trails and a boardwalk through the gardens. When you do, keep an eye out for alligators. You’ll see plenty of swans and birds, but remember that feeding them is not permitted.

A curiosity is the chocolate garden. Established in 2009, it makes for a whimsical addition. Warn the kids that these plants are not really chocolate. No sampling allowed! Edible plants, such as chocolate cherry tomatoes, chocolate corn and chocolate mini bell peppers, all have a chocolate look but alas the kids will be sad to know they still taste like vegetables. The Chocolate Garden also grows flowers with chocolate-colored leaves, or stems, or centers of flowers, as well as chocolate-looking grasses and a chocolate Mimosa tree.

More than 250,000 people visit the Swan Lake-Iris Gardens each year. Many come from afar. You, though, are close by and you’ll be glad you made the 66-mile drive to this accidental garden. Perhaps you’ve read about the gardens in Southern Living and Better Homes & Gardens. Why not see it up close and personal? It’s less than a day away.

If You Go …

• Swan Lake-Iris Gardens,

Free Admission

822 West Liberty Street

Sumter, S.C. 29151


Open daily

(except holidays)

7:30 a.m. to dusk


Learn more about Tom Poland, a Southern writer, and his work at Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected]

Speak Your Mind