Unknown Upstate: A Walk in the Woods

Gillian Newberry, a retired professor of botany at USC Upstate, has been studying dwarf-flowered heartleaf populations, including this one at Upstate, over the course of many years.

Step onto the trail behind the Burroughs building and you enter a world far removed from the manicured lawns and tidy flower beds of the USC Upstate campus.The path can be easy to miss – some red blazes and a modest dedication plaque set back from the parking lot mark the start. Follow the red clay trail along and you pass a semicircular seating area for outdoor classes, the weathered wood benches warmed by sunlight filtering through the canopy of branches. A small footbridge, warped and twisted from age and weather, crosses a trickling creek, while here and there rough benches invite visitors to sit in contemplation.

This quiet, peaceful corner of campus almost was lost to development in the campus’ early days, says Jack Turner, director of the Watershed Ecology Center. At that time, Turner notes, “We had a few trees that lined the sidewalks, river oaks and water oaks, but they were small.” The arboretum was still years away from existence, so the woods provided a unique outdoor lab for botany classes.

But plans for the fast-expanding central campus called for clearing the land for a new building, something Gillian Newberry, a now-retired professor of botany at USC Upstate, says she and Turner vehemently opposed. They successfully made a case for why the university should preserve the land, ensuring that students today still have access to this natural resource.

Among the main reasons for preserving the land was Newberry’s discovery of Hexastylis naniflora, a threatened plant commonly known as dwarf-flowered heartleaf, which grows in seepages. The plant, which for most of the year can be identified by its single heart-shaped leaf, blooms from February to May, and its seeds are distributed by ants, Newberry says.

“The fact that we have a plant there grows here and Greenville County and Henderson County, and nowhere else in the world, is certainly an eye-opener to many people,” she says.

It also highlights what a valuable teaching tool the woods are, Newberry says, full of treasures to share with students. “If you’re giving a lecture about deciduous woodlands, it’s much more inviting to show than to tell,” she says.

Hexastylis naniflora, commonly known as dwarf-flowered heartleaf, grows in only three counties, two of which are in South Carolina. Newberry estimates this plant on the Upstate campus is around 100 years old.

Creating the trail was a labor of love for Newberry and students in the Science Club, which she advised. The group gradually completed a loop through the woods and added the amphitheater for outdoor classes. Always there was brush to be cut back and debris to be removed.But the restoration work that took place in the 1989-90 school year had an added purpose. Rebecca “Becky” Cox, a 40-year-old student who died of a brain tumor before she could complete her senior year, had been an active member of the Science Club and students wanted to honor her memory.

“I remember the shock with members of the club when she so tragically left us,” Newberry recalls. “She was a joy to have in the group. She was quiet, but very willing to work, very willing to join in our activities, and seemed to truly enjoy being with us.”

A small plaque was erected at the trailhead paying tribute to Cox. A few weeks later, Newberry noticed a young man making a rubbing of the plaque, and introduced herself. The man told her he was Cox’s brother, and was so touched by the Science Club’s tribute that he wanted to have a record of it.

While trail maintenance today is on an as-needed basis, a new spur was recently added that leads to a small pollinator habitat. Large planter boxes contain plants that provide food for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects, and signage offers suggestions for how to encourage pollinators in backyard gardens. The habitat is also accessible by foot from East Campus Boulevard.