The South’s plantations of old have long been soliloquized, in yellowed newspaper clippings, novels set in antebellum bliss, and modern reconstructions in glossy magazine articles. The fabled white columns wrapped in fragrant honeysuckle, forsythia, and rose buds shine bright in the imaginations of many. In truth, few of today’s plantations stand up to our fabled visions of rolling hills and roving gardens, instead inhabited by infertile furrows and weakened, ancient blossoms struggling to bloom. Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation, however, is one of those special and rare historical places that not only brings our dreams to life, but enriches them.
Magnolia Plantation is Charleston’s most-visited plantation and one of the oldest plantations in the South. Thousands of visitors flock to Magnolia each year to take in its breathtaking gardens. In the spring, the lush gardens are set aflame with the vibrant colors of hundreds of thousands of azalea blooms, their rosy pinks and crimson reds like nature’s kisses. And in the winter, camellias take center stage, their many-petaled blossoms ranging the color wheel. All year long, the live oaks and cypress-tupelo swamps buzz with fauna while the surrounding landscape morphs with the seasons, from the buttery yellow of March’s daffodils to the burnt oranges of marigolds and mums in the fall. The gardens are renowned, not for their structure, but for their synergy with nature.
Three centuries and fifteen generations of a single family have lived on the hallowed grounds of Magnolia Plantation and made their mark upon her gardens. Thomas and Ann Drayton first settled on the land outside Charleston in 1676, building a small abode and formal garden on the site. The land was eventually developed into a rice plantation (popular in the antebellum low country) and, with the plantation’s success, the house and gardens grew. When Reverend John Grimke-Drayton inherited the plantation in the 1840’s, he began to develop the gardens into the masterpiece they are today. According to legend, Grimke-Drayton’s incitement for such impassioned cultivation was to woo his wife southward from her native Philadelphia.
Grimke-Drayton worked tirelessly toward reworking the already sprawling acres into an English-style garden. In doing so, he revolutionized Southern gardening. Grimke-Drayton was, for example, among the first to use camellias outdoors and allegedly introduced the first azaleas to American soil. Grimke-Drayton and Magnolia Plantation began earning laudations before the war for his cultivation of azaleas and live oaks. Like most Southern homes, Magnolia Plantation suffered damages during the Civil War, her manor house burnt to the ground by Union troops, but the plantation did not fall. When the Draytons sought to rebuild after the war, they did not simply start anew; instead, they took the structure of a pre-Revolutionary War house from Summerville, South Carolina, floated it down the Ashley River, and used its frame as the core for the house that still stands today.
During the Reconstruction, when times were hard for even the most affluent plantation owner, Grimke-Drayton opened his gardens to the public, charging an admission fee in order to earn money for new, mounting taxes. “Magnolia-on-the-Ashley” became the first private garden open to the public in 1870. Over the following one hundred and fifty years, the Drayton family has continued to own and operate Magnolia Plantation, house and gardens. Each consecutive generation has delicately influenced the gardens, the popular trends of the time visible in the varying designs and blooms. Today, Magnolia is a verified tourist attraction, open seven days a week, 365 days a year, with various attractions, including a boat tour, a nature train, and a historical guide of the plantation’s slave quarters. But it is the gardens that still draw the most visitors, their fragrant and radiant blooms touching the hearts and eyes of her visitors. So Drimke-Drayton’s dream came true after all—his wife, and hundreds of other visitors from Philadelphia and across the globe, are constantly drawn to Magnolia and the South by his magnificent gardens.