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Plant Focus

For this Species Spotlight we train our follow spot on an oak that is quite a star of the quercine scene: Quercus hypoleucoides (stage name...

Oaks in Aiken

Oak enthusiasts from nine US states and two foreign countries descended upon the town of Aiken, SC, during the first week of November.  It was the site of the Oak Open Days organized by IOS member, Bob McCartney of Woodlanders Inc., a rare plant nursery. The tours included four separate locations and were guided by Bob and several other experts in the area. The Citywide Arboretum was on full display and featured two mile-long (1.6 km) oak collections, a longleaf pine preserve, a public display garden and a rare tree and plant collection along one of Aiken’s main streets. Aiken’s arboretum is unique in the fact that it is not a designated parcel, but includes all public and private property including Hitchcock Woods located in the center of the city.

OOD participants
OOD participants at the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum, on the morning of the first day (Photo: Guy Sternberg)

The eager tourists were greeted with a welcome reception on the first evening in the city’s reconstructed train depot, which now serves as a visitor center. A fine meal was accompanied by rekindled friendships and bluegrass music.  The Aiken City Manager welcomed the visitors to town and presented a brief history of Aiken. The following morning the attendees were divided into two groups and each went to tour a separate part of the city.

Q. oglethorpensis
Quercus oglethorpensis displaying fall color

One of the mile-long oak collections was planted along a median parallel with the train tracks that run through the heart of Aiken. We stopped at the Aiken County Agricultural Services Center where several rare species of trees and shrubs have been planted over the years. A subspecies of sugar maple (Acer leucoderme Small) was beginning its showy fall color display and a putative hybrid of Quercus rysophylla Weath. × canbyi Trel. planted by Bob were among the first trees encountered here. A beautiful Q. salicina Blume with limbs practically lying on the ground met us as we rounded the corner of the building. Just beyond this were two Lithocarpus species (L. edulis (Makino) Nakai and L. glaber (Thunb.) Nakai) with a few scattered blooms and a few remaining acorns, which were scooped up in a hurry.  As we started on the oak trail along Park Avenue, the first oak encountered was the incredibly rare Q. boyntonii Beadle. This oak is listed in the IUCN Red List of threatened species (www.iucnredlist.org) as endangered.

Q. boyntonii
Quercus boyntonii (Photo: Roderick Cameron)

As we continued down Park Avenue, we saw one excellent specimen after another. The second tree we visited was a small, nice Q. germana Schltdl. & Cham., complete with one acorn.  We saw many more beautiful species such as Q. rysophylla, Q. polymorpha Schltdl. & Cham., Q. marilandica var. ashei Sudw., Q. sartorii Liebm., Q. affinis Scheidw., and a very unusual hybrid of Q. nigra L. × myrtifolia Willd. Most of these specimens had plenty of acorns and they were quickly collected by the happy tourists. Another collection has been planted along Beaufort Street, and the array of oak species is just as outstanding. 

Q. sterilis
Quercus ×sterilis (Q. nigra × marilandica)

That afternoon included a visit to Hitchcock Woods, the aforementioned longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Mill.) preserve located essentially in the center of town. This area was owned by a wealthy couple in the late 19th to early 20th century and used as a place to ride their horses and hunt. In 1939, the Hitchcock family established a trust and set aside more than 1,100 acres/445 ha as a place for others to enjoy as well. Today, Hitchcock Woods has grown to more than 2,100 acres/850 ha and is recognized as an important ecosystem. It is managed as a longleaf pine preserve and holds a variety of oak species such as Q. laevis Walter, Q. margaretta (Ashe) Small, Q. incana Bartram, Q. marilandica Münchh., Q. coccinea Münchh., and Q. nigra L. We gathered on the edge of the preserve and were met by our guides Bennett Tucker, Superintendent and Julie Moore, botanist who has studied the woods ecology for decades. After standing amongst the tall loblolly pines (easily over 100 ft /30 m tall) located in a low lying area, we headed up the slope and found a changing palette of plants as we went. The loblolly pines, pignut hickories, black walnuts and water oaks at the bottom gave way to turkey oaks, bluejack oaks and of course longleaf pines. A putative hybrid of Q. laevis × marilandica was located along the edge of the trail about midway up and had several acorns. Other interesting plants included Carya pallida Engl. & Graebn., Oxydendrum arboreum (L.) DC., Persea borbonia (L.) Spreng., Kalmia latifolia L., Magnolia virginiana L., and Pinus virginiana Mill. Aiken has been a strong equine community for generations and portions of Hitchcock Woods are used for annual horse shows and hound hunts are still held in Hitchcock Woods.

Pinus taeda
Pinus taeda in Hitchcock Woods 

The second day of tours took us to Colleton Avenue, where another collection of rare trees and shrubs which is located in a residential area of Aiken. Wide medians allow for excellent planting areas and this has wisely been taken advantage of. One unique aspect of this collection is the signage that the city installed with Bob’s guidance. Designated trees are labeled with genus, species and common name along with a phone number and an extension code. Visitors can dial (803) 295-5008, plus the extension of any tree they wish and a short message about that tree follows. There are over 100 trees and shrubs labeled this way, allowing for self-guided tours through the collection. We concluded our journey at Hopelands Gardens and The Rye Patch where we saw many interesting species such as Nyssa biflora Walter and Juniperus bermudiana L. along with awe inspiring live oaks (Q. virginiana Mill.).

Bob McCartney
Bob McCartney on Colleton Avenue (Photo: Roderick Cameron)

This OOD was concluded by an oak seedling give away sponsored by Woodlanders and a small acorn swap. Attendees scooped up acorns, swapped trees, promised to keep in touch until the next time, and everyone headed back home.  

Q. inopina
Quercus inopina

A full account of all the tours will be found in the upcoming issue of International Oaks and those not present will get a better feeling for just how incredible the City of Aiken and its horticultural treasures are. I would like to thank Bob McCartney and the City of Aiken for organizing this event and extending hospitality to all the attendees.


Photos by the author unless specified otherwise. You can read here about the ice storm that struck Aiken in Feb 2014.