Patrick McMillan Ph.D. ’06

Garden Guru

By Sara Ann Hutto ’17

From teaching and creating an Emmy Award-winning television show to directing the South Carolina Botanical Garden, McMillan’s career at Clemson has been one big adventure

After jumping off the school bus and running to the woods, a young Patrick McMillan would wrap his textbooks with a piece of plastic and tuck them under the leaves of a rhododendron bush. The rest of the afternoon would be spent exploring the flora and fauna of the forest near his North Carolina home in Alleghany County.
“I would get back to the house just in time to eat dinner,” McMillan says. “If there was still light after dinner, I was back outside.”
Fast forward, and McMillan is not only the Glenn and Heather Hilliard Professor of Environmental Sustainability but also director of the South Carolina Botanical Garden, Bob Campbell Geology Museum and Clemson Experimental Forest — spending much of his time in the same way as his school days: exploring the outdoors. And he just wrapped up the final season of his Emmy Award-winning ETV show, Expeditions, where he has spent the last 15 years adventuring all over the globe and educating the public on the natural world.
When a Clemson videographer first approached McMillan with the show, McMillan pitched sugar maples for the pilot episode. “You could see his eyes kind of glaze over,” McMillan laughs.
But the idea was actually much more complex. A bird’s-eye view of South Carolina’s coastal plain reveals various rings and clusters of deciduous trees, like sugar maples, where evergreens normally grow. This phenomenon is a direct result of Native Americans throwing shells on the ground thousands of years ago, which raised the soil pH and allowed the growth of deciduous trees.
“To me, that was, and still is, one of the most poignant examples of how important everybody’s choices are,” McMillan says. “Every action we take has a permanent impact on the trajectory of the world.”
By the time he finished explaining, the videographer was on board.
Aside from the show, one of McMillan’s proudest accomplishments is what he and his team have managed to achieve with the South Carolina Botanical Garden. They have created working ecological communities seen throughout the state, from the mountains to the sea: “Rather than gardening in a colonial way, where you’re trying to control and box up nature to display it as a trophy, we’re trying to garden in a way that represents how the world works, filling all the spaces we can with something — with life.”
What’s next for the garden is the construction of a treehouse project many years in the making that, when finished, will allow visitors to traipse across an aerial walkway and experience the garden from the tree canopy. But developments like this wouldn’t be possible, McMillan says, without substantial support from his team and the University.
“The opportunities I’ve been provided by Clemson have allowed me to really exceed any dream that I had,” he says. “You can’t build an organization without people believing in you and what you’re doing and putting all of their effort into it.”