In this guest post, my friend and colleague Linda Rosenberg describes her recent visit with friends to Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, the oldest public garden in the U.S.
A plantation tour is one of the highlights of any visit to South Carolina’s low country (the region along its coast)—especially if you arrive after March when the lush gardens are in bloom and the weather is pitch-perfect.
With a group of friends, I recently visited the 325-year-old Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, which sits on the banks of the Ashley River, about ten miles north of Charleston. Meticulously maintained, the former rice fields are overgrown but Magnolia is still owned by and has been beautifully preserved by the twelfth generation of the same family since 1679.
Dubbed the South’s “complete plantation experience,” the sprawling grounds encompass 500 acres of land filled with winding paths, bridges, towering Cypress oaks covered in Spanish moss, ponds and marshes, 3000 varieties of flowering plants (including 30,000 azaleas and 350 different varieties of camelias) and abundant wildlife. We learned that in its heyday, before the Civil War, Magnolia was once four times its present size.
Visitors can choose one or more of several admission packages that offer guided nature, boat, house or slavery tours or they can opt for a leisurely stroll or bike ride on their own.
A family of peacocks greeted us displaying their plumage, the first of many photo opportunities. We lingered a bit and moved on to an engaging orientation film that simultaneously explained the history of the property and the story of three successive generations of the Drayton family who lived there through slavery, the Civil War, and after abolition. The film portrayed a family committed to their land, building vast wealth and a rice plantation of great beauty but who expressed benevolence towards their slaves and offered them some education.
Any visitor can’t help but be struck by the beauty of the plantation and riches of its owners contrasted with the shame of slavery, which was underscored when we passed by the small shanties we passed that were once occupied by the slaves who toiled the land and served the owners.
As the boat tour season had not yet started, we purchased tickets for a 45-minute narrated tram tour that pointed out some of the unique flora and fauna on the grounds. While waiting for our tour to start, we wandered through the gardens on foot guided by a recording via our cell phones. The style of the gardens is informal and casual, the owners hoping to create an ambience that was “Eden-like.”
We stopped for pictures near a gazebo surrounded by the beautiful magnolia trees that give this plantation its name and stepped inside the conservatory that houses an amazing variety of orchids. It seemed like it would make a dream venue for any bride.
Our tram tour was led by Patrick, a veteran naturalist who patiently answered questions and pointed out the wildlife around us. These included yellow-bellied pond slider turtles (one of six species of turtles found there) that are prey for the alligators (including fifteen-foot Bubba) that share the same waters.
Passing oak trees estimated to be more than 500 years old we sighted eagles, osprey, blue herons, cranes and fishing cormorants, among the 400 species of birds found on the property. The tram tour deposited us at the handsome plantation house with a white wraparound porch. A docent led us through its rooms, recounting the houses tumultuous history, and then we took a peek into the charming gift shop filled with local crafts, foods, and gift items.
The plantation and gardens have been open to the general public since 1870 when visitors arrived at the property on steamboats. It is open year-round, dazzling visitors of all ages with its beauty and peacefulness that changes with the seasons.
Magnolia holds a unique place in history as the oldest public garden in the country and is also said to be one of the first tourist attractions in the U.S. Over the years, the Drayton family entertained such illustrious visitors as Eleanor Roosevelt, Orson Wells, and John Audubon.
IF YOU GO:
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, 3550 Ashley River Road, Charleston, South Carolina
Linda Rosenberg is a prominent healthcare architect and advocate who is President and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health. She resides in Washington, DC.
A brief video of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens