Masthead header

Travel Talk: Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, SC


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  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.  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!

You might enjoy these posts:

Amanda C - March 25, 2017 - 5:05 pm

Awesome! Can’t wait to visit and tour it in person. Thanks for sharing.

Ellen Martin - March 23, 2017 - 10:00 pm

I am just getting around to reading this post, and I’m so glad I didn’t delete before reading and enjoying your trip through Magnolia Gardens. I have been to Magnolia, but it’s been years, so your post makes me want to return… the spring. What a treat you had being shown through by the resident horticulturist, Tom Johnson, your old friend. Loved all the history too! Wonderful post, as always!

julia walker - March 22, 2017 - 11:08 pm

Dear Kelly, That was so wonderful I cried. What a story! I’m so glad you saw Tom and had the personal tour. I love history & you did a great job of writing Magnolia Garden’s. I visited Drayton Hall back in the late ’80s & didn’t know the Drayton family owned Magnolia Gardens. Thank you for sharing your trip with me. Take care. Julia

Peggy - March 22, 2017 - 2:38 pm

What a beautiful garden! And those old trees! So very excited that you got to have a childhood friend give you the personal tour. What fascinating history. Your daughter made an excellent choice.

DiAnne - March 21, 2017 - 9:58 pm

What an amazing tour!
Isn’t it “funny” how life can come back around with a familiar face?
Great post!

Marianne in Mo. - March 21, 2017 - 7:37 pm

Well, weren’t you so very lucky! Any garden is okay with me!

kathy - March 21, 2017 - 7:21 pm

How wonderful to have Tommy as your personal tour guide! I know you were on Cloud 9! What a beautiful place!

Leslie Anne Tarabella - March 21, 2017 - 5:45 pm

I go back and forth with liking formal and natural looking gardens. It’s kind of like decorating where I like all neutral rooms, but also adore bright, bold colors! Does that make me schizophrenic? (please know that I spelled that correctly on the first try!).

I’ve never even heard of this garden, but want to see it! Thanks for the tip!
No it does not mean you are schizophrenic. You are just well rounded Leslie Anne! (And obviously a good speller as well! 🙂 )
The next time you go to Charleston, I hope you will have the opportunity to visit Magnolia Plantation. It was really interesting!

Amy O'Quinn - March 21, 2017 - 2:35 pm

As many times as I’ve visited Charleston and the surrounding locations, I’ve never been to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens! I can see that I need to make it a point to go there the next time we visit. And how wonderful that you ran into an old friend who ‘just happens’ to be the head horticulturist there! I’m sure he was just as thrilled to show the ‘place’ to his hometown folks as you were to get the private tour. 🙂 What a delightful surprise for you, your husband, and your daughter. Serendipity at its best! Happy Spring, Kelly!

Lisa - March 21, 2017 - 9:10 am

Good morning!
I am an avid gardener. I always loved gardening but contracted gardening fever in a big way after my April Georgia tour.
Next Spring my niece and I are planning to visit Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah. I’m saving all your tips on hotels and places to tour.
I’ll especially look forward to Magnolia Plantation. I think it’s so fantastic you were able to see Tom again & have him show your family around. He sounds like a wonderful gentleman. I remember the article about him in Southern Living. I’ll have to read it again. I save all my Southern Living issues!
As always thank you for sharing your wonderful travel experiences.
Hey,I’m wondering if you’re still pondering your lake house?
Also, happy spring! Ugh! We broke a record here in S.E. OK yesterday. 91°!
Good morning to you Lisa!
What a wonderful trip that will be with your niece! All of those cities will be in their spring finery, and it is their very best!!
Yes, we are still thinking about a lake house. In fact we talked with someone last night after dinner to see if they had any information on any that might be coming up on the market in our area…but no luck yet. Which I guess is okay considering it is going to be months before our house is even ready to think about being on the market. (The exterior and landscaping are MAJOR jobs at this point.)
I know what you mean about the temperatures in our area. Why does it seem we have to jump right from winter to summer here in the southeast? 91 is not good for March! (We are supposed to get to 88 here today.)
Hope you have a cooler spring day today!

Tricia - March 21, 2017 - 4:21 am

Kelly, what a wonderful experience. Imagine running into Tom, and being able to have him personally show you around. I’m sure you made his day, just as he did yours.
Yes, he did make our day, Tricia! It was a fun experience that could not have worked out better if I had planned it. 🙂

Florence Crowder - March 20, 2017 - 10:50 pm

A wonderful story that just about covered everything. I love it there and go as often as I can.
Oh how lucky you are Florence to get to enjoy Magnolia Plantation on a frequent basis! Jealous!

Vicki - March 20, 2017 - 9:01 pm

I loved that home and garden. I believe we saw many alligators there. It is spectacular. Loved the memories of it as I followed you along. What a special tour you had! Awesome!
I can see how there would be alligators with the Audubon swamp. I am glad we didn’t see any! It was a very special tour for sure. I’m happy you have fun memories from your visit there! 🙂

Louvina - March 20, 2017 - 8:13 pm

Oh my word, Kelly! I told you I had toured a plantation while in Charlestown– can you believe it was Magnolia? I was reading the post and kept thinking ” all this is sounding familiar ” was this the same one? Sometimes I can’t remember names of places — 😊– but when I saw the Long Bridge — I knew! How exciting!! But you my dear– got the Royal Tour!! So interesting! Plus seeing things most tourists never get to see!! Loved it so much!! Now, I’m going to find my booklet about it and read with a bit more interest since learning you have “walked these same historical grounds!”‘ 🤗
How funny! I’m so glad you were able to tour Magnolia! Yep, that Long Bridge isn’t anywhere else, so that had to be it. 🙂 And yes, we did get the Royal Tour indeed!

Andrea - March 20, 2017 - 7:58 pm

What an amazing garden….this is my idea of a beautiful garden….natural, effortless (although it was not). Just as nature meant it to be. How wonderful that you ran into your friend and got the opportunity to see it! Thank you for sharing
Thank you for reading Andrea! Yes, it was a very natural looking one, and you are so right that it is not effortless. Tom said that it is even more difficult when trying to make it look like it is natural.

Gabrielle - March 20, 2017 - 7:37 pm

What a wonderful tour and opportunity. Goes to show it is a small world after all. Beautiful stories and photographs as always Kelly.
It IS such a small world! But I also feel that timing in life is so amazing…if we had not stopped by the restroom, we would have missed him entirely! We never know what ripple effects small decisions have, do we? 🙂
So glad you enjoyed the post!

Nancy - March 20, 2017 - 7:03 pm

What an amazing experience all around for you- to run into your family friend and to get to tour an amazing place and see it through the expert’s eyes! Your’re so right- a priceless experience!
Thank you for sharing it all with us!
You are quite welcome Nancy! It was a very fun day…one we won’t forget! 🙂

Barbara S. - March 20, 2017 - 6:29 pm

Hi Kelly! Happy 1st day of spring to you, too! You write very well about traveling to so many wonderful places to visit here in the south! I think my husband and I would love to visit Magnolia Plantation. Your writing and photography is so well done that I want to visit so many of the places you write about. Thank you for the tours!!
Thank you Barbara. You are too sweet! I hope you do get to visit some of the places I have featured here on the blog. So many places…so little time! LOL

Carole - March 20, 2017 - 6:22 pm

Thank you so much for posting this! My husband and I are traveling to Charleston next month and plan on visiting Magnolia Plantation and I’m even more excited about it after reading this. We also have lunch reservations at Husk, thanks to you!
Oh how fun!! Magnolia will be absolutely gorgeous in April! (as will all of Charleston. :)) And I am sooo glad you were able to get a reservation at Husk. You are going to have such a fun trip!

Cheri - March 20, 2017 - 5:11 pm

Happy First Day of Spring to you also, Kelly. Thanks for the info and wonderful tour. I wish my gardens could look half as good.
You are quite welcome. I am right there thinking the same thing about our yard as well Cheri. 🙁 Time to get to work on it!

At Rivercrest Cottage - March 20, 2017 - 3:26 pm

Lovely tour and very interesting. Amazing when people are able to grow beautiful plants in abundance like that.
Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the tour. 🙂 It IS amazing, and I am sure it takes a large staff to keep it going like that.

Julia - March 20, 2017 - 3:06 pm

Being a romantic at heart, this is the garden tour for me! So peaceful! Magnolia Plantation and Garden will be on my list to see for sure!
Good! I hope you do get to tour it Julia…and in the spring when all those wonderful azaleas are blooming. 🙂

Gina - March 20, 2017 - 3:03 pm

Wow! What a tour! How fortunate to randomly run into “Tommy.” It was meant to be. 😉 The gardens are beautiful and the history so interesting. I love their approach of a less formal garden even though I can appreciate both. How wonderful to still be in the same family. I’m sure this was the highlight of your trip. I was hoping you toured Middleton Place. Our niece is getting married there at the end of September so I will at least get to enjoy their gardens. 🙂
Timing is everything, isn’t it? 🙂 The garden was amazing.
How wonderful that your niece is getting married at Middleton! That will be a beautiful wedding I am sure!

S u b s c r i b e   b y   E m a i l