The beautiful black waters of Swan Lake form the setting for the spectacular Iris Gardens. The lake is dotted with colorful islands, and wildlife is abundant. The only public park in the United States to feature all eight swan species, Swan Lake-Iris Gardens is also home to some of the nation's most intensive plantings of Japanese iris, which bloom yearly in mid to late May and last until the beginning of June. The garden also boasts many other floral attractions, including colorful camellias, azaleas, day lilies, and Japanese magnolias. A Braille Trail enables the sight-impaired to enjoy the scents and sensations of the gardens. The gardens come alive with color during the Christmas season with the nighttime Fantasy of Lights display, featuring more than 1,000,000 varicolored sparkling lights in an array of colors and shapes.
Swan Lake-Iris Gardens began in 1927 as a private fishing retreat for Hamilton Carr Bland, a local businessman. At the same time he was developing the 30 acres of swamp on what is now West Liberty Street, he was landscaping the grounds of his home with Japanese iris. They failed miserably, and after consulting expert horticulturists from as far away as New York, he ordered his gardener to dig up the bulbs and dump them at the swamp. The following spring, they burst into bloom. The accidental garden, referred to by Southern Living magazine a "lovely mistake," has since been developed into one of the finest botanical gardens in the United States.
Following Bland's lead, in 1938 Mr. A.T. Heath, Sr., deeded the additional acreage on the other side of Liberty Street to the city with the stipulation that Mr. Bland develop this part of the gardens. Today, the Heath Gardens encompass most of the park's 120 acres. Mr. Bland deeded the Bland Gardens to the city in 1949. The two gardens are joined by the McDuffie Overpass, a gift to the city from the McDuffie family in 1994. The most recent addition is the Heath Pavilion, opened in 2002 at the rear of the Heath Gardens on property given to the city by the Heath family in 1998.
The magnificent swans are gathered from all over the world, representing Australia, North America, South America, Europe and Asia. Originally imported by Mr. Bland in the late 1920's, the Australian Black swans have been in residence the longest, and some of the birds living in the garden at present are their descendants. Other species were added over the years, with the donation of Bewick swans in 1997 by Yuasa-Exide Corporation completing the collection. Visitors are permitted to bring bread and crackers for feeding the swans, who are usually friendly except during the early spring mating season, when reasonable caution should be exercised as they become quite territorial at this time. Canada geese, mallards, egrets, herons and anhingas also call the gardens home.
Swan Lake-Iris Gardens contains the open-air Garden Street picnic shelter, the covered Heath Pavilion with seating for 200, and the enclosed Visitor's Center with conference or reception space for 125. Picnic tables are located throughout the grounds, and a large playground features an antique fire engine perfect for climbing. The Bland Gardens also feature a boardwalk, on which visitors may meander through a cypress swamp, and a gazebo that is popular for spring weddings.
The Heath Pavilion, Garden Street Shelter, Visitor's Center and gazebo are available for special events by reservation. Please contact the Visitor's Center at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. The gardens are handicap accessible.
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