Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, Charleston, South Carolina

While we were down south, we visited three plantation gardens, each very different.  First I’ll introduce you to Magnolia Plantation, which is located in Charleston, South Carolina.

But before I go any further, let me remark on the ‘elephant in the room’, that is slavery.  It is no secret that during the late 17th, 18th and 19th centuries the plantation economy in the American south was powered by generations of blacks who were originally taken from their African homes to work the land ensuring that these estates could prosper.  The rich plantation keepers owed their bounty to these enslaved black men, women and children.

Magnolia Plantation honours this history by offering a 45 minute tour called “From Slavery to Freedom” three times a day.  We were unable to go on it, however, because it was a tram tour that would only accommodate dogs that could be carried (!) and Skye is no lap dog.

Notwithstanding that oversight, from the little bit of reading that I have done, my biggest surprise is how the ‘slave’ community in South Carolina (and Georgia) was just that:  a community of blacks — a combination of those recently brought from afar, those who had come years earlier or who had been born into slavery in America (this community of blacks in the low country of the coastal south became known as the Gullah culture).

In his book, The African American Odyssey of John Kizell, Kevin G. Lowther traces the life of a young African boy who was given the name ‘John’ by his American owner after he arrived in Charleston in 1773.  This area was populated primarily by black slaves since the early 1700s (“5,833 slaves and twenty-four free blacks in 1770 outnumbered the 5,030 resident whites”) and it was within this community, and not just the ‘White’ world, that the newcomer would have to find his way.  If you’d like to read more about what it was like to live in the Low-Country during the height of the plantation economy through the eyes of slaves, go to this wonderful website here.  According to Lowther, in the latter half of the 18th century and beyond, the so-called ‘Negro’ slave in this part of America lived within a surprisingly autonomous, structured and racially dignified world.  In many ways it was almost parallel to, rather than subservient to, the white population.

Magnolia Plantation was founded in 1679 by Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann.  They traveled to this area on the banks of the Ashley River from their home in Barbados and with slaves originating largely from West Africa (what is now Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea), made it into a thriving rice plantation. These African blacks brought with them a knowledge of rice cultivation (which had been taking place on the African coast for 3,000 years) but they also brought tropical illnesses like malaria and yellow fever.  Because the climate during the hot summer months in Georgia and South Carolina was the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, thus also for the spread of these diseases, the white landowners (who had no resistance to them) usually retired from the swampy coast to the urban centres during a substantial portion of the year, leaving the cultivation of the crops and running of the estate to their slave workforce.  As a result, the ‘Gullah’ culture was able to thrive without much interference.

Crops like rice, indigo, cotton and then tobacco were harvested in the swamps and fields and taken down the Ashley River to the ports of Charles Towne and Savannah, further south.

Simple wooden barges were built to transport these goods and there was a thriving business from this and other riverbank plantations.

This property stayed in the Drayton family until Thomas Drayton’s (the original owner’s great-grandson) death in 1825.  He had no male heirs so the property was willed to his daughter’s sons, primarily Thomas (the elder son) and secondarily, John Grimke.  The only condition was that these boys changed their family name to Drayton – a small price to pay to inherit their mother’s family estate.

But while studying for the priesthood in England, the younger Drayton, John, was summoned to take the reins of this grand estate.  It seems his brother Thomas had been shot on Oak Avenue during a deer hunt, and died on the home’s front steps.

The young and remaining Drayton continued his plan to be a minister and so entered a New York seminary in 1838.  While he was studying he met and married the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia lawyer, Julia Ewing.  They both returned to Charleston and Drayton took on the task of managing the estate and continuing his theological studies.  The extent of the work doing both took a toll and he contracted tuberculosis.  Determined to get well on his own terms, Drayton decided that fresh air and managing the gardens of the estate would cure him.  And miraculously it did.

Drayton wanted to make Magnolia a place of beauty and romance for his wife.  Even today, this estate is known as the quintessential “romantic” southern garden.  And boy, it sure is.

It was during this 19th century Drayton’s stewardship of Magnolia Plantation that the gardens began to really flourish.  Drayton must have been a frustrated horticulturist because he was smitten by both azaleas and camellias, the former which he introduced to American gardens and to cultivation outdoors rather than simply under glass.

Our visit coincided with the last week in February so the azaleas were just beginning to bloom.  But the camellias (Camellia japonica) were in the midst of their glory.

Camellia japonica 'Pink Perfection'; Japan 1875

Magnolia was the first garden in America to plant azaleas outside. In the spring, hundreds of thousands of blooming azaleas grace the paths and lake basins. Their reflections in the lake’s dark waters are utterly stunning. Hundreds of varieties of Indica, Kurume, Satsuki, Glen Dales, native azaleas and other hybrids are in Magnolia’s collection. New varieties are added annually.

Working with The Great Gardens of America Preservation Alliance in 2010, Magnolia identified 15 varieties of Indian Azaleas previously thought to be extinct. They are being propagated to share with other preservation-minded gardens across the nation. One of Magnolia’s primary objectives is to locate and preserve these older azalea varieties for future generations to enjoy.

(From the Magnolia Plantation website)

When the Civil War erupted in the American south, plantation estates were laid bare and many never recovered.  Their workforce was liberated and the scale of production they had maintained could not continue.  Magnolia’s very existence was at risk.  Whether Drayton saw this as an opportunity or a hail-Mary, it is no doubt the conversion of his estate into a tourist destination for plant lovers during the 1870s was what saved it.

Regular excursions were made from Charleston that took sightseers down the river to visit the renowned gardens at Magnolia-on-the-Ashley.  Whereas a carriage ride over bumpy roads would take upwards to three hours a distance of 13 miles, the journey by paddle-wheeled steamer was just one hour long past picturesque riverbanks.  Others would reach the garden by South Carolina railroad and were let off across the river, to be ferried to the plantation dock by ferry.

It may also be that his compassion towards his slaves (he incorporated schooling into their daily schedule under the guise of religious instruction despite the ardent disapproval of his wealthy white congregation) ensured that they stayed on with him after emancipation, thus ensuring the continued glory of the gardens.

What was once the schoolhouse is now the Public Relations Office on the grounds.  And another of the modest cabins houses washrooms — beautifully presented for today’s tourist.

The gardens here at Magnolia blend the feeling of an untouched wilderness with carefully tended artifice.

As a tourist of the 21st century, you are treated to more than just gardens:

Here is the welcoming committee:  a very noisy group of guinea fowl.

And their more regal relatives:  the peacocks.

Meet a muddy goose …

And don’t be fooled by these chubby faces; nobody ever feeds these beasts!  They will scratch and nudge and stomp their feet until you give them a handful of fresh grass..

And if *you’re* hungry, don’t worry.  Unlike many tourist eateries, the small cafe at Magnolia is an excellent provider of quality treats and home-made food… you will not leave unsatisfied.

There is nothing at this wonderful place that was a disappointment.  If you get a chance, make a point of visiting. In fact, spend the day.

And did I mention, dogs are welcome?

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