South Carolina Botanical Garden timeline

1958 - A camellia preserve was planted on land near John C. Calhoun's 19th century Fort Hill estate in the heart of Clemson University's campus.

1959 -The garden was moved to a former campus landfill to accommodate a design for a new football stadium.

1987 -A forestry arboretum and nearby Clemson land were consolidated with the horticultural gardens to form a 208-acre Clemson University Botanical Garden.

1992 -The garden is renamed the South Carolina Botanical Garden.

1990s - The garden begins to add works of natural sculpture.

1996 - Plans are announced for a Southern Living display home, which eventually becomes the garden's visitor center and its neighboring museum of geology.

2013 - The garden, now 295 acres, unveils its new Natural Heritage Garden in May, but two months later, floods force its main trail to close.

2014 - The Natural Heritage Garden is scheduled to reopen April 19.

CLEMSON - The botanical garden at the university here has been subject to change ever since its first camellias took root in 1958.

But last July's heavy rains caused a uniquely damaging event to its brand new Natural Heritage Garden, which is the spine of the larger garden and features more than 1,000 types of plants native to South Carolina.

Two days of downpours, which dumped 11.5 inches and then 7.5 more, caused a nearby retention pond to overflow, sending a wave of water down the garden's small creek.

The flood wiped away most pedestrian bridges, eroded topsoil from some sections and dumped silt in others - damage estimated at about $200,000.

The full scope of the damage won't be known for another few months, as warmer temperatures make it more clear which plants survived, said senior horticulturist John Bodiford.

For instance, the South Carolina Botanical Garden had almost every species of trillium in the Southeast. A few species clearly survived, but it's unclear how many more will emerge. "We're waiting on that more than anything else," Bodiford said.

The upside is the disaster brought offers of help from the campus and well beyond, including some botanical gardens in New England that offered to help.

"It was very humbling, actually," Bodiford said. "We had so many volunteers who just wanted to come out and clean up - just do something. I almost had to tell folks, 'We can't use you now.'"

Another upside is that one of the garden's rarest plants, the Oconee Bell, survived. Even the short wire cages sunk in the ground to protect the younger bells were not washed away.

"It's kind of like divine guidance," Bodiford said.

Garden director Patrick McMillan said the garden has raised the necessary money to repair the trail and rebuild the bridges, which are set to reopen on April 19 -when many plants along the trail are in bloom.

Clemson's architecture students are helping design and construct the new bridges, which will have a low profile.

"The neat thing about the rebuild after the flood is we've had the opportunity to redo things in the most sustainable way and it provided a great teaching venue," he said.

The biggest change is a step to redesign the trail and change its grade so it doesn't channel water as severely.

"The flood was a huge psychological blow and a huge financial burden," McMillan said, "but the good thing about the flood is it forced us to deal with a problem that has existed for 50 years."

Meanwhile, the garden's fundraising campaign is more than halfway to its goal.

McMillan said the work that remains to be done is building more flood control structures upstream, "and that's the part we'll work on this summer." They'll need to raise more money to do that, he added, about $100,000.

The garden is open at no charge, and it is visited about 400,000 times a year.

"The kind of support we're receiving now is the kind of support that this place really needs on a continuing basis," McMillan said.

Meanwhile, this winter's cold weather has not caused much damage to another new section of the garden - its southwestern collection next to the visitors center. This area contains about 300 species of cactus and other species from Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts.

Those deserts are at high altitude, so their plants are used to colder temperatures. Still, Bodiford noted, "Patrick camped out in 8 degree temperatures to monitor the heaters." It seems to have worked.

"We lost a couple of things, but nothing more than the average winter," McMillan said. "(Still), it may not be terrifically beautiful for a couple of months."

The garden also is expanding its natural Heritage Garden with a maritime forest section, complete with a simulated shell ring. That is scheduled to open next year.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.