It’s the first official day of spring. What better thing to talk about today than a garden? And the gardens we toured in Charleston were really something to talk about! There are a number of plantations and gardens you can visit when in Charleston: Middleton… Drayton…Boone Hall…Magnolia, but we only had time to tour one on our trip there late last summer. Because our daughter was making the choice on this part of our trip, I did absolutely no research on the plantations. Yes, you read that right – not one bit of research. What is this world coming to?
After her research, she chose Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. At the time, the only thing I knew about Magnolia was that Tom Johnson was the executive director of the gardens there. Tom Johnson – the guy I had known as Tommy Johnson – a life long friend of my brother who had spent many a night at our house growing up.
But I had no plans to track him down on the plantation. After all, it was a work day. I was sure he had things to do. If I saw him, I would say Hello and chat a few minutes, but on a 390 acre historic site, I figured the odds of seeing him were very slim, and goodness knows, I had not seen him in 40 years! We probably wouldn’t even recognize each other. So my husband, daughter, and I bought our tickets…basic admission. self guided tour. We weren’t planning on seeing anything but the gardens on that hot and humid August afternoon.
We entered through the gates, went down the walk, viewed the Biblical Garden as point #1 on the tour, and then made a pit-stop in the bathrooms there (since we knew there wouldn’t be another opportunity to do so later on.) As we were coming out of the little restrooms I overheard a man and woman laughing and talking outside a building with a sign reading “office” beside it. I looked over and saw this guy:
I knew that face.
Of course I had to ask…
Are you Tommy Johnson?
To which he replied I’m Tom Johnson. 🙂
Then I introduced myself, my husband, and our daughter to him, and before I could even say Well how are you? and all those other things you say when you haven’t seen someone in four decades, he asked…
How much time do you have?
We told him All afternoon.
Great! Let me show you around the garden!
Now before I go any further, let me tell you a bit more about Tom in case you don’t know. He grew up here in Perry, Georgia (“Perrydise” as James Farmer likes to call it. 🙂 ) He was the leader of a group that won a national FFA award for their work in landscaping our downtown area. After college his first job was with a huge firm in Atlanta landscaping the downtown area there, and then he hit it really big. He was put in charge of landscaping President Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Library there in Atlanta. That job lasted for a little over 14 years, and then he decided to return back to his hometown roots – taking a job with nearby Massee Lane Gardens, working with the American Camellia Society.
He got hooked on camellias (Idiot-proof because they are hard to kill, he says. 🙂 ) And he also became a frequent lecturer on Romantic Gardens. That style of gardening is not your formal-trimmed boxwood-edged borders kind of garden, but rather a very natural, beautiful one – often compared to what the Garden of Eden must have looked like. One of the family members at Magnolia Plantation (who is also on their board of directors) heard Tom’s lectures, decided he was just what the plantation needed to get it back on the right track, and set out to hire him.
But Tom wasn’t going anywhere…or at least that’s what he thought. After several failed attempts by Drayton Hastie Jr. to lure him to Magnolia Plantation, Tom finally accepted the job when his wife decided they were going to move to Charleston. 🙂
Since then he and his staff have done amazing work restoring the gardens at Magnolia Plantation, winning numerous national and international awards. This position has sent him world wide for speaking engagements, for procuring prized camellia cultivars, and for award recognition. In fact, he was named “The Camellia Man” in Southern Living’s 50th anniversary issue! So, when Tom Johnson said, Let me show you around the gardens, I knew it was a big deal. 🙂
But of course, being the polite Southern lady that I am, I said
Oh no..no. You don’t have to do that! I know you must be busy.
But he insisted, (being the polite Southern gentleman that he is 🙂 ) and so began our personally guided tour of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens with head horticulturist, Tom Johnson.
Now, don’t go thinking he is some high-falutin’ garden snob. Not.at.all. He is a major country boy at heart, and quite a character to boot. 🙂 And good grief is he ever knowledgeable! We followed the paths around as he told us all about the plantation, its plants, and its history.
Magnolia Plantation was founded in 1676. Thomas Drayton immigrated to the British Colony of Carolina in 1671, met and married Ann Fox, and her father gave them 2000 acres along the Ashley River. The Draytons built a home there, and the plantation has been in the family ever since. (Today it is run by the 13th or 14th or so generation of the family.) Imagine..over 300 years still in the same family!
The original plantation house burned in the 1790’s. Another home was built there. It was inherited and occupied by the Reverend John Grimke Drayton who married Julia Ewing from Philadephia. It is told that she was very homesick for Philadephia, so Rev. Drayton decided to create what was then a new style of romantic gardens in order to make her happier there in South Carolina. He imported plants that she liked from Boston and Philadelphia – especially camellias that only grew in conservatories in the North. They grew well in the climate there in Charleston, and he had paths, lakes, and bridges put in so that they could walk and enjoy the views of the gardens…and hopefully forget all about Philadelphia. 🙂 The Long Bridge below, one of several he had built, is one of the most photographed spots on the plantation.
Before the Civil War the plantation’s main crop was rice. With the advancement of General Sherman’s troops in SC, the Draytons left Magnolia and went to their summer home in Flat Rock, North Carolina. In 1865, one of their slaves, Adam Bennett, walked 250 miles to deliver the message to Rev. Drayton that the army had burned their home. But he also told him that many of the former slaves wanted to help him rebuild there.
So they did rebuild…sort of. The Draytons owned a home in Summerville, SC, and they had it floated down the Ashley River to Magnolia Plantation. It is now the main part of the house, but other rooms have been added onto it since then.
After emancipation, not all of the slaves stayed, and growing rice became unprofitable without them. They were almost in financial ruin when the Draytons decided to open the gardens to the public and charge admission. Many of the freed slaves were hired to work there, and the garden opened in 1872. Magnolia Plantation is now the oldest public garden in America. There are over 27,000 camellia’s alone there, with more than 2,000 different varieties. But camellias aren’t the only plants in the gardens. Rev. Drayton added a large number of daffodils and azaleas as well, and they are an amazing sight in the spring. (We need to make another trip back to see the gardens in March and April.)
On August 31, 1886 a big earthquake shook the city of Charleston and the surrounding areas. Many buildings were destroyed in town, and many walls were damaged on the plantation (including cracking one of the walls of the family tomb.) Repairs were made, but the crack on the tomb is still visible.
In 1889 the plantation was willed to daughter Julia Drayton Hastie. (She married William Smith Hastie.) Since that time, all of the maintenance of the plantation has been under the direction of her direct descendants. Fast forward a hundred years to 1989. That was when Hurricane Hugo came ripping through coastal South Carolina – bringing major damage to the plantation. Many of the giant trees came crashing down on the antique plants in the garden.
John Drayton Hastie Sr. was owner at that time, and he brought in helicopters to airlift the trees out of the garden and help the staff clean up after the devastation. The camellia garden was 7 acres at the time. It took 3 years to clean it out, and even with that, many of the markers were missing – markers that had identified over 100 varieties of plants. Eventually the camellia garden was neglected and taken over by wisteria and smilax vines.
In 2002 Drayton Hastie Sr. died, and the property was left to his two children and 5 grandchildren. They became the board that now oversees the plantation, and they decided that they wanted to restore the gardens to their 1870’s style. It hasn’t been an easy task. It is a multi-million dollar project, and it is taking 20 years to accomplish it all.
Today Magnolia Plantation and Gardens not only offers the house and original gardens for touring, but guests can also take advantage of a wildlife observation tower, a nature train, a petting zoo, a replica 18th century holly maze, a 16th century herb garden, a Biblical garden, a tropical conservatory, a bamboo garden, and the Audubon Swamp Garden (Audubon was a frequent guest of the Draytons.)
Whew! That was a lot of info wasn’t it?! So, as you can see from the photos, Tom led us through the gardens and through the house (and the gift shop on the lower level where he graciously gave us a book about Magnolia Plantation.) Then he took us into the conservatory to see the plants inside and how it is set up.
There are paths through it, and the Conservatory’s deck overlooks the red bridge and the Ashley River. It can be reserved for small events for up to 60 people.
Tom then took us through the beautifully rustic carriage house.
The building dates back to 1840, and it too can be rented for events.
It can accommodate up to about 200 people.
There is also a deck overlooking the peaceful Ashley River.
Once we finished seeing the event venues, Tom took us to see a cottage…
and the slave cabins. They were actually occupied by descendants of the original slaves up until the 1980’s. They have since been restored to their pre-Civil War appearance.
And with that, we concluded our tour of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. What a day! It was a beautiful place to see in the summer, and I cannot imagine how gorgeous it must be in the spring with all the azaleas and daffodils blooming or in the winter with the camellias in bloom. Now remember, this is a Romantic Garden, a natural one that is not supposed to look maintained. If you are looking for a plantation to tour in Charleston that has formal gardens, this is not the one for you. But if you like one that is more natural in style, you will fall in love with Magnolia!
Touring the house and other buildings was fun.
Visiting a Southern garden steeped in history was wonderful.
Seeing the entire plantation through the eyes of an amazing horticulturist who deeply cares for it?
Thank you soooo very much Tom Johnson for an amazing tour!
And happy first day of spring dear readers!