The Great Sentinels of South Carolina

Our travels have brought us to South Carolina, where we’ve been for the last week. The weather this time of year is just about perfect even if the mosquitoes are still out in force. And the hospitality is everything you’ve heard about for the South. It’s “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Ma’am” and “Y’all come back anytime” everywhere you go from every soul you meet.

Our hosts, friends of R’s from his days living in New York, have graciously put us up and helped us explore Charleston and the beautiful swamps around Lake Marion.

There’s a lot to praise about this state, so I’ll be breaking it up into several posts. For now…

Let’s talk about the trees

Live Oak, dripping with Spanish Moss, at the Magnolia Plantation. Photo by T.

Before this trip, I’d only ever been to South Carolina in books. Pat Conroy wrote that “live oak trees, festooned with cool scarves of Spanish Moss, and gnarled by a century of storms, loomed over the street.”

All due respect to Mr. Conroy, but he undersold it.

A day or two among the trees in South Carolina is an exercise in humility. They are massive, and they grow in the most extraordinary places. They have survived the wars of nations, both native and foreign, roiling hurricanes that seem to be getting worse with every passing year, and the steady thrum of human development.

Truly the trees here are the great sentinels of time, patience, and mystery.

Spanish Moss hangs from an oak tree at the Magnolia Plantation. Come back for a future post about the plantation and the tours available there. Photo by T.

The Spanish Moss that drapes itself across the trees is not really moss at all, but a flowering plant that is native to the area. It is not a parasite, though it’s easy to assume so. The plant absorbs water and nutrients from the air and propagates by sending its seeds floating through the air. It’s soft to the touch and has been used in everything from insulation to jewelry to clothing. But I think you’ll agree that something this enchanting begs to have a more exciting story. There’s a legend that you can find all throughout Charleston:

There’s an old, old legend, that’s whispered by Southern folks,
About the lacey Spanish Moss that garlands the great oaks.
A lovely princess and her love, upon their wedding day,
Were struck down by a savage foe amidst a bitter fray;
United in death they were buried, so the legend go
“Neath an oak’s strong, friendly arms, protected from their foe;
There, as was the custom, they cut the bride’s long hair with love
And hung its shining blackness on the spreading oak above;
Untouched, undisturbed it hung there, for all the world to see.
And with the years the locks turned grey and spread from tree to tree.

Probably the most magnificent specimen of Live Oak tree is this beauty:

The 400 year old Angel Oak. Access is to this beauty free, but they won’t let you climb on it. Photo by T.
Another view of the Angel Oak. Notice how the branch dips into the Earth and then emerges again. Make seeing this a priority if you’re ever in the Charleston area. Photo by R.

The cypress trees are another miracle of nature. A number of religious stories link the Tree of Life to the cypress, and it’s easy to see why. It just seems like magic or some divine grace that allows a tree to spring up out of the water instead of on land.

Cypress garden at Lake Marion. Photo by R.
More Cypress trees in Lake Marion around dusk. Photo by T.

There are a number of tours available, including kayaking adventures on Lake Marion if you have more time. There are alligators and water moccasins in the water, so don’t go swimming unless you’re sure you’re in clear waters.

We were fortunate to have hosts who brought us out to these remarkable testaments to nature, so we can’t recommend a specific tour group to use. This link may help you narrow down your options. Do your research, but it’s unlikely you’ll be disappointed in what you’ll see.


  1. Gorgeous! I recently returned from New Orleans, so I can attest to the Southern charm and manners. However, I have never seen any trees such as those pictured from South Carolina. I am going to add a visit to South Carolina – and Lake Marion – in particular. Thanks for sharing.


  2. I love to call the Spanish Moss, Dragon Snot. It looks like a flying dragon with a bad cold sneezed on the tree.
    I love the trees! And the moss!


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