For almost 40 years, Nurseries Caroliniana in North Augusta has been providing plant lovers across the globe with one-of-a-kind plants and one-of-a-kind service.
The business has two sides: a wholesaler that supplies landscapers with unique and hard-to-find plants, and a retail store that provides those varieties to individual customers.
The owners, brothers Ted and Gerald Stephens, started the nursery in 1973 in downtown North Augusta.
Ted is the scientific side of the business and heads the wholesale operation. Gerald directs the retail shop and provides landscape design, plant disease diagnosis and gardening advice to customers.
Plants are in Ted's blood, Gerald said. Even when the brothers were young, Ted was fascinated by plants and would save his pennies to buy exotic varieties. In fact, Ted saved $50 to buy a daylily when he was a young boy.
"I completely didn't understand why he used money for plants," Gerald said. "I told him, 'Ted, you could buy a go-kart with that money!'"
Ted kept his love of plants and graduated with degrees in ornamental horticulture from Clemson University. Gerald also went to Clemson and studied engineering, but when the Vietnam War broke out, he enlisted in the Army while Ted stayed in school.
When Gerald came back from the military, he planned to return to Clemson and finish his degree using the G.I. Bill, but Ted asked him to help start the nursery. Gerald agreed, thinking it would be a short-term project and that he would be back in engineering classes soon.
INITIALLY, THE RETAIL STORE carried few exotic plants and was a fairly average nursery. The brothers did landscape design, but in the early 1980s when the real estate market dropped, so did the nursery's design business.
Ted, who had been handling design, began to focus on horticulture and plant patenting. Gerald started using his engineering skills to give landscaping advice, and also began diagnosing plant diseases.
"To my surprise, I found I really liked it," Gerald said.
He stayed with the nursery, and in 2001 they moved from downtown North Augusta to their family's property on Mims Grove Church Road, where they were raised and both live.
The wholesale farm was already at that location, and moving the retail side made it easier to provide customers with any quantity of unusual plants.
Those plants are the nursery's claim to fame, and they are either brought over from Ted's annual horticulture trips to Japan or are discovered and propagated by the nursery staff.
Tokyo's climate is very similar to the Augusta area's, and the plants Ted brings back have an almost 100 percent survival rate.
"We're known for our unusual varieties," Gerald said.
The nursery has patented many plants, going through years of processing and paperwork in order to preserve a plant for the future.
"It's quite the process," Gerald said.
The nursery incorporates the name "Caroliniana" into almost all of its patented plants. The name means "of the Carolinas," and the nursery likes to emphasize native plants as much as wildly exotic ones.
The brothers' patenting and plant discoveries have made the nursery known nationwide, and it has shipped plants all over the United States and even to some nurseries in Japan and Australia.
"We regularly have customers come in from all over -- Charleston, Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta," Gerald said.
Those out-of-town customers are hard to anticipate, however, and when the retail store was downtown there were frequent emergency trips to the farm to get more plants for unexpected guests. The move made those annoying treks a thing of the past.
NURSERIES CAROLINIANA exudes a homey atmosphere, from the rustic pine siding exterior to the employees who are almost all family members. The land has been in the Stephens family since 1861, and Gerald said there's nothing like working on the land he grew up on.
"The property is your heritage," he said.
The nursery is full of Stephens family members: Ted and Gerald's sister, Donna, handles accounting; Gerald's wife, Susan, is in charge of the store's interior decorating; their son Shuford helps with landscape design and retail; and their other son, Nathanael, works with propagation in the wholesale farm.
Peggy Gillingham has been working for the nursery more than 30 years, and she said she's seen the Stephenses' work and genuine care for people pay off again and again.
The nursery has numerous customers that have been coming for years, Gillingham said.
"We've had kids who have grown up and are bringing their own kids," she said. "You see generations go by." She attributes that to the Stephenses' loyalty to their customers.
"It's all about being a smaller business and genuinely caring about the customer," she said. "Most of us are big plant people, too."
The staff at Nurseries Caroliniana is well-versed in plant knowledge, and Gillingham said getting to work with plants in such a comfortable environment is something she never wants to give up.
"I know I'd never have another job where I knew my boss has prayed for me every day," she said of the close bond among the employees.
"I love working here," she said. "Except for pulling weeds in July."