University of South Carolina

Urban preserve

By Steven Powell,, 803-777-5400

Just two blocks off Devine Street, not far from Piggly Wiggly and Jiffy Lube, is one of the city of Columbia’s diamonds in the rough -- the W. Gordon Belser Arboretum

A lush, 10-acre respite from its urban surroundings, the Belser Arboretum contains 10 distinct biomes, or plant communities, that are representative of natural biomes from around the state.  

The preserve serves as an essential teaching laboratory for USC students. Students from the university taking laboratory courses use the arboretum for field experiments. 

The university’s need for a nearby biological field laboratory helped spur the restoration that created today’s Belser Arboretum. And it needed some work – yesterday’s arboretum was a bit of a jungle. 

“Before we started work here in 2006, you couldn’t have made your way from one end of the arboretum to the other without a machete,” said Patricia DeCoursey, a professor of biology and director of the arboretum. 

The property was donated to USC in 1959 by W. Gordon Belser, a local attorney who lived in and helped develop the neighborhood now bordered by Devine Street, Rosewood Drive and Beltline Boulevard. 

He saw that Columbia’s urbanization would soon displace natural forests throughout the city, and he designated that his 10-acre donation be set aside as an arboretum. 

“Belser recognized it as one of the most unique properties in Columbia, because a big river fed into the Atlantic Ocean there a long time ago,” said DeCoursey. “You have sand dunes, a deep valley and deposition from the deep river – a rich black soil.” 

But the arboretum fell prey to neglect. Invasive non-native plants and choking vines spread throughout the area. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 brought down a number of the largest trees on the property. 

By the mid-2000s, though, USC’s need for a nearby field laboratory and DeCoursey’s recognition of the potential within the dying woodlot came together. 

“Believe it or not, I could see from the ecological patterning that we could create the 10 different sites on the 10 acres here,” DeCoursey said. “And that’s what we’ve done.

DeCoursey and a team of volunteers have toiled since 2006 to transform the arboretum into a beautiful yet functional center for education and outreach. Hundreds of USC students use the arboretum every year now, both for field experiments and service projects.

And with an open house once a month (see their events calendar here), community outreach is an important part of the mission as well. Have you visited the Belser Arboretum yet?

News and Internal Communications

Posted: 12/07/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 12/10/12 @ 10:17 AM | Permalink