HISTORY BENEATH THE TARMAC

BY PJ GARTIN

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Charleston International Airport has a French connection, except it has nothing to do with aviation. The next time you’re rolling luggage through the breezeway between surface and deck parking, stop before crossing the street and turn around. Mounted above the metal open-air structure that you just walked through rests an exquisite, recently installed 6-by-34-foot canvas mural that recounts the life of one of the world’s most renowned botanists, André Michaux (1746 – 1802). But at the airport? Oui, because, here, buried somewhere beneath swaths of turf and concrete lies his botanic garden.

This was certainly no ordinary plot of greenery. One of early America’s most peripatetic botanists, Michaux needed a place to store and nurture the thousands of plants he gathered while traipsing up to Hudson Bay, down to Florida, across to Ohio and into Missouri, and later throughout the Carolinas. Thanks to the resolve of the nonprofit organization Friends of André Michaux (friendsofan dremichaux.wordpress.com), and the exquisite artistry of muralist Karl Beckwith Smith, airport travelers are now afforded the chance to take a visual journey back to the 18th century and learn about Michaux’s adventures.

The son of a farmer, Michaux later joined Louis XVI’s court. In 1785, after realizing that years of naval warfare with England and Spain had severely depleted the kingdom’s ship-building timber, Louis sent Michaux to the United States to find more oak trees. He was literally counting on his royal botanist to keep the French navy afloat.

Upon his arrival to North America, Michaux set up an operation south of New York City, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. However, the climate proved horticulturally disastrous, so Michaux moved to Charleston a year later and purchased slightly more than 100 acres north of the peninsula. Although no one knows what this southern botanical garden looked like (historians are also clueless about Michaux’s appearance), the center of Smith’s mural captures what a utilitarian, post-colonial plant-shipping endeavor might have looked like. Michaux’s intentions were certainly not based on a grand ornamental design to impress his neighbors, which included the Middletons and Draytons who lived on the other side of the Ashley River.

Once his oak-gathering obligations were fulfilled, and his scientific notes were packed away (it was later published as the book History of North American Oaks and is still used in academia), the always-curious Michaux kept on exploring. However, now he filled his Charleston garden with newly discovered Carolina flora instead of oaks. Friends member Marsha Greenhill compares him to the battery-operated rabbit that runs on and on, because Michaux never quit botanizing.

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Although always a scientist and explorer first, one of Michaux’s endearing traits was his zest for sharing plants with friends and neighbors. While he didn’t discover Camellia japonica (it first showed up in England about seven years before his birth), Michaux was familiar with its growing habits and introduced this species to the Middleton and Drayton families. Thanks to his kindness, Drayton Hall, Middleton Place and the Drayton family’s Magnolia Plantation and Gardens are internationally renowned for their outstanding collections of ancient (pre-1900) camellias. He also gave his Lowcountry friends crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), Indica azalea (Rhododendron indicum) and correctly surmised that the tea plant (C. sinensis) might enjoy our climate. Although Michaux has no direct connection to American’s oldest tea plantation still in production, it’s not surprising that it’s located on Wadmalaw Island, located south of Charleston.

He also shared flora he discovered during other travels. Prior to his North American expeditions, Louis XVI sent him on a diplomatic trip to Persia and Mesopotamia. Always the plant collector, he returned to France with an ensemble of exotic flora, which included pomegranate (Punica granatum) and gingko trees (G. biloba). Once he moved to South Carolina, Michaux must have realized that they’d do well in the Lowcountry. Both remain favorite ornamental trees in Charleston home landscapes.

Michaux also introduced the world to Carolina flora. He named nearly 300 indigenous species. His posthumous book, Flora Boreali-Americana (1803), was the first ever published on North American plants.

Will we ever know the exact location of Michaux’s garden? Probably, because the Friends of André Michaux are as tenacious as their beloved French botanist. After all, their commitment to elevating Michaux’s historical significance at the airport took nine years to come to fruition—and, like that bunny, they keep on going. Follow their next journey on their website.

PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.