Kalmia Gardens is named for Kalmia latifolia, the mountain laurel that thrives here thanks to the steep bluff dropping to the Black Creek floodplain.
In 1932, “Miss May” Coker acquired the 56-acre property – an abandoned farm – from her brother-in-law William, who knew of its botanical value.
Both May’s husband David and his brother William were instrumental in breeding improved crops for the region, such as cotton, corn, and melons.
They learned their skills thanks to their father, James Coker, who studied agriculture and botany with Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray at Harvard.
Over two generations, the Cokers heavily influenced the cotton and textile industries in South Carolina and founded a seed company widely respected throughout the south.
James founded Coker College as an arts college for women. Now part of the college campus, Kalmia Gardens was gifted to the college by Miss May in 1965 in memory of her husband David.
Plan Your Visit
Location: Hartsville, South Carolina
Address: 1624 West Carolina Avenue, Hartsville, SC 29550
Hours: Dawn to dusk daily
Fee: Free. Donations appreciated.
Since much of the landscape at Kalmia Gardens is vertical, only the cultivated gardens surrounding the Hart House are accessible.
Restrooms are located in the back of the Little White House.
Hartsville is somewhat off the beaten path from major highways in South Carolina. Florence is the nearest large city.
Where I-95 and I-20 meet in Florence, follow Interstate 95 north. Take exit 164 and follow US 52 west for 5 miles. Use the bypass around Darlington to US 401. Turn west on SC 34. After 5.3 miles on SC 34, take SC 151 at the Y intersection.
Stay on SC 151 for 8.5 miles to Hartsville. Turn right on Deerwood Dr, and right onto Kellytown Rd at the T. Make a sharp left onto W Carolina Ave and look for the gardens entrance immediately on the right.
After acquiring what was formerly a portion of a cotton and tobacco plantation established by Thomas Hart in the early 1800s, Miss May set about beautifying the property by planting gardens.
The 1816 home that is the centerpiece of the upper level gardens was known as Laurel Land, because of the abundance of mountain laurel along the bluffs.
While it had been abandoned for some time, Miss May had a vision for the property, and engaged the help of contractors to build trails through the woods.
She directed them to plant azaleas, camellias, and many other exotic ornamentals throughout the woodlands.
She opened the gardens to the public in 1935, and they have been open ever since. While the Hart House wasn’t fully restored until 1996, it is beautifully accented with a series of gardens.
Inside the Gardens
As we entered the gardens, our attention was grabbed by a massive tree surrounded by a grassy lawn.
It’s the biggest American Beech in South Carolina, the state champion tree at 80 feet high and almost 15 feet in circumference.
Surrounding the Hart House are formal gardens with open lawns and gleaming white arbors.
Beds of daffodils and rows of camellia bushes adjoined these formal spaces. A small sign for the Rhododendron Trail beckoned us into the woods.
Here, flame azalea, indica azaleas, and flowering dogwoods added color to the spring greens of the understory, as did Florida star anise.
While it was too early for mountain laurel to be blooming, we saw some buds setting on the bushes along the steep slopes.
Once at creek level, we followed the Floodplain Boardwalk along it, encountering some rather large red cedars.
A canoe dock provided a better view of a portion of the creek that had likely been channelized long ago for use.
The Kalmia Loop continued along the creek from this point, but since they weren’t in bloom, we backtracked.
Returning along the boardwalk, we ascended the Camellia Trail up the bluff, passing a pond ringed by azaleas.
Back at the Hart House, a Sensory Garden offered an array of colors, textures, and aromas. Blooms dotted the Rose Garden with reds and pinks.
Discovering a steep staircase down the bluff led us to a beech ravine on the edge of Black Creek, where an artesian well once provided water to the Hart family.
A bridge across Black Creek leads to the adjoining Segars-McKinnon Heritage Preserve and its trails, traversing more than 700 acres in the floodplain.
The gardens are at their finest in April when the azaleas bloom throughout the woodlands, and in June when the mountain laurel blossoms on the bluffs.
When open, usually 8 AM to 4:30 PM weekdays, the Joslin Education Center has a small museum and live animal exhibits.
It is also home to hands-on nature classes for local children. Adult classes are also offered, and the local Master Gardeners chapter meets here.
Wedding venues include any of the three lawns surrounding the Hart House as well as the house itself. Reservations must be made at least a month in advance.
Walk through Kalmia Gardens with us by viewing our photographs from our visit. Click to open the gallery.