When Martin Hamilton first laid eyes upon the South Carolina Botanical Garden (SCBG), he was impressed by the diverse plant collection spread across nearly 300 acres throughout its mix of formal and natural areas.
But what really blew Hamilton away wasn’t what he saw; it was what he heard.
“I’ve been amazed at how many people, stakeholders and longtime supporters, are so passionate about the place,” Hamilton said. “My wife and I spent quite a bit of time in the Garden on our first visit prior to my interview. We would stop and speak to people we met walking. I was very impressed with the people that I met while I was here — incognito — many of them were very knowledgeable and had been visiting the Garden multiple times a week for many years. They really cherish the place.”
No longer incognito, Hamilton began work on Aug. 1 as the new executive director of the SCBG at Clemson University, bringing a wealth of work and study experience at institutions in the United States and abroad, including Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Kentucky, the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG), Kew, in England and Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Virginia.
“The SCBG has so much going for it — its large size, mix of formal and natural areas, very diverse range of species due to the geographic location and climatic conditions, dedicated staff, and very supportive stakeholders,” Hamilton said. “Above all else, I believe this is the job that I’ve been preparing for my entire career and I’m very excited to bring my decades of experience in public garden horticulture and conservation to the SCBG.”
What began in 1958 as a camellia preserve on a small parcel of land adjacent to John C. Calhoun’s 19th-century Fort Hill estate has since grown to 295 acres of cultivated landscapes and natural woodlands. Designated as the State of South Carolina’s botanical garden in 1992, the Garden is at the intersection of Highway 76 and Perimeter Road at Clemson University.
“We couldn’t be more excited to welcome someone with Dr. Hamilton’s background and who is so well-respected in the horticulture industry to Clemson University,” Clemson Cooperative Extension Director Tom Dobbins said. “The SCBG is committed to providing world-class educational outreach and opportunities through public classes, engagement with Clemson University classes, exhibits and special events, and we strongly believe that Martin is a leader who not only understands the Garden’s special place in the community and state, but also has the expertise to help it reach even greater heights.”
Hamilton is an Honorary Research Associate at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and a Fellow of The Linnean Society of London. He is particularly interested in the conservation and management of threatened species, habitat restoration and the development and management of plant collections and is actively involved in international projects researching the conservation and management of threatened plants.
The Garden’s mission is to serve as a holistically managed landscape fostering a healthy ecosystem and experience for the public, while serving as an interdisciplinary resource focusing on teaching, research and outreach that advances awareness and understanding of our plants, animals and culture.
Hamilton said he feels his background has provided him with the experience to successfully lead SCBG with a perspective to “act locally and think globally.”
“My vision for the garden is rooted in horticultural excellence, plant conservation, sustainability, resilience and community,” he said. “We must focus resources on our plant collections and horticultural practices, native species conservation, invasive species control and stakeholder engagement. I feel that we must foster interdisciplinary approaches if we are to address the major challenges of the day so we will develop programs that increase our impact and engage new audiences through intertwining art, history, botany and horticulture.”
A native Kentuckian, Hamilton spent most of his early years on the family farm in rural Christian County surrounded by miles of farmland and forests. These years provided many opportunities to explore the natural world and helped him develop a love for nature, plants in particular.
Hamilton earned a bachelor’s degree in 2000 from Western Kentucky University before going to work at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest where he had previously undertaken a summer internship.
In 2001, his application was successful for a place on course 39 of the Kew Diploma in Horticulture, a three-year work and study programme at RBG Kew. After finishing the Kew diploma in 2004, he began working in the Kew Herbarium and then secured the new post of UK Overseas Territories Programme Coordinator from 2006 until 2014.
Hamilton then became the Research Leader for the UK Overseas Territories team, undertaking field-based research projects mainly in the Caribbean. In 2016, Hamilton completed his PhD in Biology from Birkbeck, University of London based on his Kew-based research projects. After leaving Kew in May 2021 and before accepting the Executive Director position at SCBG, he served as the Head of Plant, Garden and Landscape Programs for the Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Virginia where he led the three teams responsible for the formal gardens, biodiversity conservation and landscape maintenance across the 700-acre campus, started a new arboretum and wildlife garden and delivered public programs.
Throughout his career, Hamilton says he has worked to empower underrepresented voices through training and knowledge sharing and encourage young leaders through internships and opportunities to attend courses, workshops and conferences. He plans to bring this same approach to the SCBG and work to ensure the importance of the living collections is understood and appreciated.
“I want to help people reconnect with nature and build sustainability into their lives,” he said. “I feel plants, gardens, landscapes and the arts that link to these themes are a great way to end plant blindness. I am dedicated to providing access for all and feel we need to do more to encourage nature experiences. I look forward to working closely with the garden’s myriad stakeholders to help realize the SCBG’s full potential.”
Hamilton takes the lead role at SCBG from Shannon Barrett, who served as interim director and will now move into the position of assistant director of strategic operations. In this role, Barrett supports the executive director and leads planning and design, education and visitor’s services for the Garden. She is also an instructor in horticulture at Clemson University.
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