Nestled along the Ashley River just outside of Charleston, South Carolina is one of America’s most hidden treasures. The peacefulness and serenity of the gardens of Magnolia is something that one could only appreciate after strolling through it magical trails. Every turn is another adventure, and behind every corner is another discovery. I heard so many stories about Magnolia from my mother when I was growing up. She was from Charleston, and she relived her memories of Magnolia in every story that she would tell. According to my mom, this garden paradise was something bigger than life itself. It was years later before I actually visited Magnolia, but I soon understood why my mother loved it so much.
My passion is camellias. Those that know me realize that I am always in search of just one more camellia, and it was this quest that first brought me to visit Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. I have travelled across America in search of camellias, and I have visited many of the most well known camellia collections in this country, but Magnolia was like nothing that I had experienced before. For a camellia lover like me, it was nothing short of having a kid in the candy store. Just about every type of camellia that you can imagine from a bygone era is flourishing within this southern paradise. I don’t think that I ever took as many pictures with my camera as I did when I first discovered Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.
My primary interests in visiting Magnolia were to see their vast camellia collection and to walk through the same garden that my mother had loved when she was growing up. In taking the tour and discovering the story behind the gardens, I learned so much more than I had even imagined.
The story at Magnolia centers around a truly remarkable family and their journeys through this earthly paradise for eleven generations. It began in the late 1600’s when Thomas Drayton married Ann Fox. Ann’s father gave the newlyweds the property that is now Magnolia, and that is where it all started. Way back then, life in America was a challenge at best. This country was truly a wilderness. As the Draytons began to carve out a life on the plantation, one of the first issues was to establish a formal garden that they called “Flowerdale’. This degree of formality helped them make some organization in an otherwise free flowing environment.
Although many different types of crops were attempted at Magnolia, it turned out to be the growing of rice that was responsible for wealth and prosperity. It did not take long before the Drayton Family was one of the most influential families in the south.
Magnolia and the Drayton family have much history from the colonial days to the American Revolutionary War. Many of the family members played prominent roles in American history along with the history of South Carolina. From the historical account of how the gardens and the fabulous camellia collection came into being, a major happening occurred in 1825.
It was in 1825 that the estate of Magnolia passed to two brothers. The older one was named Thomas Grimke and the younger of the two was John Grimke. Thomas took charge of the plantation, while John decided to follow his calling into the ministry and study at the seminary. Nothing could have prepared John for was about to take place. John received word that his brother Thomas had tragically been killed in a hunting accident at Magnolia. This event had a profound impact on the future of Magnolia Plantation.
Everything that the Rev. John Grimke Drayton had planned to do with his life had changed in the blink of an eye. At twenty two years old, he was now responsible for assuming the control of Magnolia Plantation. The stress of the situation was certainly not an easy thing, and then something else happened that made things look even darker.
John contracted tuberculosis. This debilitating condition made the tasks at hand even more difficult. Sometimes in life during the darkest hours, decisions are made that can change everything, and that is just what happened at Magnolia. The Rev. Drayton’s doctors suggested that his health might improve if he began working outside, so that is exactly what he did. He went outside and began working every day with the slaves. He developed a close relationship with one slave named Adam Bennett who was in charge of taking care of the garden. Together, they created more gardens, and to everyone’s amazement, the Rev. John Drayton witnessed his health return. This was truly a miracle to John, and he spent the rest of his life developing the gardens of Magnolia for the glory of God.
Another interesting story about Magnolia is the great love story that contributed to the development of these romantic gardens. Rev. Drayton had married a lovely lady named Julia from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The new Mrs. Drayton was terribly homesick, so John worked even harder in the gardens to create such an earthly paradise that his beloved Julia would be content at Magnolia. Many of these wonderful plants that we enjoy today were the result of a love story of years gone by. Many of the camellias that I enjoy so much in the gardens today were originally planted for the love of Julia.
During the time when Rev. John was building the gardens, a change in philosophy was noticed. Originally when the Drayton family started out at Magnolia, the garden design was formal to create some organization in a wilderness. Under John’s direction, the garden design became more in tune with the nature that in cohabitated with. Rather than fighting nature, Rev. Drayton openly embraced it with his garden design. Today’s gardens still carry the romantic theme started by Rev. Drayton many years ago.
Another troubling time came for Magnolia with the beginning of the American Civil War. Rev. Drayton stayed at Magnolia most of the war. When the Union forces began advancing towards Charleston, he was forced to retreat to his summer home in Flat Rock, North Carolina. As most of the plantations in the south were destroyed, Rev. Drayton could only imagine what had happened to his beloved Magnolia until his former care taker slave Adam Bennett came to find him in North Carolina. Adam had walked all the way from Magnolia just to find Rev. Drayton. Although the house had been destroyed, the gardens remained. Together, Drayton and Bennett went back to Magnolia to begin picking up the pieces.
After the Civil War, it became very difficult for Rev. Drayton to keep Magnolia going. He sold much of his land holdings other than his home, and he leased parts of the plantation for phosphorous mining in order to keep things together. As he and Adam rebuilt the gardens, many suggested that they open the gardens up to the public, so everyone could come and see this hidden treasure. In 1870, he opened Magnolia Plantation up as a public garden. By the beginning of the 1900’s, Magnolia Plantation was a world renowned garden with 1000’s of visitors every year. It seems that every time in her history when something really bad took place, something really good rose up to make Magnolia even stronger and better than she was before.
The story of Magnolia and the Drayton Family continues today. In 1965 under the leadership of Drayton Haste, Magnolia Plantation and its gardens opened to the public full time. Up until then, it only opened seasonally during the spring. This began another chapter in the exciting life of America’s last romantic garden. Many additional gardens including the Audubon Swamp Garden were opened. Many more types of plants were added to give the plantation even more appeal with something blooming at all times. The Magnolia of today is still looked after with the same love and stewardship by the Drayton Family that has nurtured it since its inception over 320 years ago.
Magnolia Plantations and Gardens have one of America’s finest and most historic camellia collections. By visiting these beloved treasures of the past, I discovered so much more. When I walk the same trails that Rev. Drayton once walked, I wander what he must have thought when he was planning and planting the camellias that I admire today. Sometime when the wind is softly blowing through the trees, I can imagine that he and many that have gone before us are still there smiling as they see so many visitors enjoy their labor of love. If you have never experience the magic of Magnolia, you don’t know what you are missing. I have only mentioned just a small portion of the rich history of Magnolia and its family. Why don’t you plan a trip to visit Magnolia and experience its enchantment for yourself? I can guarantee that it will be the first of many visits that you will make to Magnolia.
Gene Phillips is one of the owners of Gene’s Nursery in Savannah, Ga. He is a 2nd generation grower and attributes his love of Camellias to his father, who inspired him to breath in the beauty that they bring to him but more importantly to others. In his ‘free’ time, you’ll find him wandering through old gardens, trying to identify flowers or taking countless number of photos to share with others! He also enjoys meeting people and comparing ‘garden’ stories.