Southern Comfort

Suppose that you’re a Southern gentleman in the 1840s, and your Philadelphia wife has a hankering to abandon the heat and humidity of the Charleston area and go back home. What do you do?

The family of John Grimké-Drayton had lived in the area since 1676. They were plantation owners, but unlike much of the south their crop wasn’t cotton or tobacco. But why?

This section of South Carolina is called the low country. Low, as in swampy. What grows well in a swamp? The Draytons farmed rice, and by the 1800s were doing very well by it.

It’s fair to note that they did this with slave labor. The Draytons were among the first to bring slaves in, from Barbados in the 1670s. These slaves, among others, developed the unique Gullah language and culture.

But this post isn’t about rice or slavery. It’s mostly about the grounds of the plantation, and how John’s gardening for his health and his bride saved a homesite.

John Drayton didn’t merely try to keep his lady’s heart with a bouquet of flowers. He went with acres of them.


The day after our Charleston visit dawned clear and muggy. While we were leaving the area, we had a couple stops on the way. The first was the Magnolia Plantation, the current day location of the Drayton’s property. Three hundred some years on, it’s still in the same family.

General admission to the property gave access to the grounds and main gardens. Optional addons were available to tour a larger area via tram, to tour the slave quarters, to tour a “swamp garden”, and to take a boat ride through the former rice fields. The only one of those that interested me was the swamp garden, and as our second stop would be the Beidler Forest, I figured we had that covered. (Of course, if you read Swamped you already know how that turned out…)

So, we meandered through the grounds and various gardens, seeing what we could see and trying not to get lost in the maze of paths. I took a few pictures (surprise, surprise), and will let them do most of the talking.

While many of the gardens were semi-formal, as it was October there wasn’t much in bloom. Spring would be a good time to visit; the place is famous for its Camelias and Azelias, and you can find more flowers. But for this trip, I found most of my inspiration in the swampier areas.

Click on any image to open a larger gallery. The pictures look much better there. Navigate with arrows.

After seeing this, you can see why I had high expectations for Beidler Forest. I figured it would be along these lines, only more so.

Spanish Moss. Emblematic of the Charleston area, it is neither Spanish nor moss.

Hanging from southern oaks like the beard of an Ent, it’s actually a member of the bromeliad family. Uncle Treebeard, if you will. Mostly it doesn’t hurt the tree, but it can grow so thick it can obstruct light from reaching the leaves, slowing growth.

Up close, it doesn’t look like moss at all. More like lichen maybe, but it is its own thing.

Whatever you call it, it gives the trees a southern shawl that bespeaks a certain grace.

The Ashley River runs by the plantation.

What’s the last thing you’d expect to find in a southern garden?

Bamboo?

On the other hand, it’d make a heck of a fishing pole…

We finished our meander back at the plantation house.

This house is one of two in the area. There is also a Drayton Hall adjacent to the property that was built in the mid-1700s that is listed as the only plantation house on the Ashley River to survive intact through both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. I’m not real clear on the story, but I get the impression Magnolia Plantation was the original site for the family, and over time they acquired many additional plantations.

The house at Magnolia isn’t the original. One site suggests it’s the third house on the site, with parts of its interior built on the bones of another 1700s era house floated down the Ashley River. Some or all (?) of the house present at the time of the Civil War burned, so this version is a reconstruction.

Even before the Civil War the gardens attracted visitors. After the war, with the labor pool freed, the gardens as a tourist attraction became the main source of income for the plantation. That continues to be true to this day.

The veranda and columns are an even more recent addition.

It gives ample space to look out over the front lawn. Perhaps that was a field for crops in the early days. We didn’t take the house tour, so those details escape me.

Here ends our tour of Magnolia Plantation, and of our trip to North and South Carolina. I’ve often thought it odd that while I’ve traveled many countries in the world, I haven’t explored more of my own country. The Carolina’s were a fresh experience for me and for my wife – it was a trip well worth taking. I hope you enjoyed the stories and pictures. Perhaps they’ll inspire you to visit the area too.

53 thoughts on “Southern Comfort

  1. My wife and I are watching on Netflix the Sweet Magnolias series. Now that I viewed your magnificent photo essay on South Carolina, I can make a real connection with what we are seeing in the imaginary town of Serenity. Thank you, Dave!

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    1. I didn’t know there was a series, although I vaguely remember a movie by that name quite a few years back. I thought it interesting that although the plantation is called Magnolia, it’s better known for Azaileas, Camellias, and a host of other plants. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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  2. We visited Boone Hall Plantation when we were in Charleston, on the east side of the city. The Boone Hall house and grounds are very different than what your photos show of Magnolia. The layout is more formal, with paved walking paths, flower gardens, and stately oaks lining the driveway. Magnolia Plantation looks exotic by comparison. Something to file away for our next visit to this wonderful area.

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    1. Magnolia had some of that too, but I found the swampy bits more interesting, and certainly more exotic relative to the Pacific NW. Although, I suspect folks from SC visiting here might find things equally exotic for them. There are certainly a lot of cool things to see in the world.

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  3. A very interesting post, Dave, especially when sharing some of the history of the area. Fascinating how the property is still in the same family. All of the photos are stunning! The reflection photos are exceptional. The word “grace” is very appropriate. Yes, I am inspired to visit the area!

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    1. I can’t imagine having the same property in the family for over 300 years. It seems like you’d have to be European royalty. Photographically, it was a very good trip and this series of posts were a happy reminder.

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  4. My friend in Charleston lives in the section of the city known as ‘West Ashley,’ or, as they call it, ‘West of the Ashley.’ It was fun to see the river in this different location. I was surprised by the number of creatures I recognized immediately. I’m not sure of the turtle, but I saw all three herons while at work today, and of course our alligators are everywhere. I do love the Spanish moss; it grows here, too, although not as profusely as in Louisiana and, apparently South Carolina.

    Your photo of the moss-draped oak leaning across the walkway also has resurrection fern growing on it. It’s an interesting plant. It grows on the limbs of big oaks, and when there’s no rain, it simply dries up and seems to disappear. Then, with rain, it becomes lush and green again: hence the name.

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    1. I did notice the ferns, but I’ve never attempted to differentiate between all the various sub-species. (And they’re so common here I probably took them for granted.) GBHs are fairly common around here, but I don’t think I’ve seen the other two. And no crocs or gators to be seen. So this walk was quite enjoyable. 🙂

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  5. Gay Julian

    Absolutely beautiful Dave. Such fine details in the birds and flowers and such an atmospheric and eerie feel in the black and white shots. Always enjoy your writing.
    Hope all is well with you both.
    All good down under.

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    1. Thanks, Gay. It was a fun place to shoot, one of my favorites for the whole trip. We’re doing well here, hunkered down mostly, but that’s not such a big change from regular life. Good to hear you’re doing well.

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    1. Thanks, Greg. It’s a bit of a mystery what attracts us to one thing over another, and how it can be completely different from one person to the next. As you can see, there were a lot of things I was attracted to at that venue.

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    1. The house tour, and its history probably would have been a good add on. But we still had Beidler Forest on the agenda, plus several more hours of driving to get back to the nephew’s house. I’m sometimes jealous of “real” photographers, and how they seem to be able to spend days in one spot.

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  6. The Magnolia Plantation seems to have made up for that visit to that dry cypress swamp. Really lovely. The dragonfly shot is my fave. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of us end up becoming domestic travelers, given the current circumstances. I’ve actually become more intrigued with the US and South Carolina, to me, appears to have more personality than Florida.

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    1. We actually did Beidler after Magnolia and I was expecting it to be like the swampy part of Magnolia only on a larger scale. I had a tasty appetizer, but the entrée was ho-hum. I was glad to get a good dragonfly shot. I don’t see them very often and they don’t always sit long enough for a shot. I agree about the domestic travel thing – assuming motel rooms are safe…

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  7. We visited Magnolia Plantation when we were in Charleston too, but my photos of it aren’t anywhere near as good as yours! Charleston is a fascinating area, and one I really want to visit again once its safe to travel. Thanks for sharing these, Dave!

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  8. This is a great album, Dave, #1 pick is that Spanish moss/Southern shawl. Very surprising to see a turtle just chillin’ with an alligator. Do you know what that stocky wading bird is, in the 6th shot?
    The house looks like a movie set, very cool, atmospheric, for a gothic mystery maybe. You could hold a convention on the veranda, and the final bridge shot also looks like something from another time. Like some place Rhett could push Scarlett off into the swamp.

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    1. All three birds are Herons: Green, then Great Blue, then Little Blue. Sounds like you liked the B/Ws, maybe they give an antebellum feel. You would think the turtle might be lunch, except for the wrapper.

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      1. I think these birds were used to people. I got pretty close, and my telephoto can do up to a 450mm full-frame equivalent. So while I did crop a little for edit it was just a little. Didn’t even get my feet wet.

        BTW, I’m in the process of upgrading my camera gear. I wonder if it’ll make a noticeable difference?

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      2. You take great photos, Dave, but it will be interesting to see what changes, with the new gear, I guess a more powerful telephoto lens would let you get more birds, etc.. I’ve been thinking about getting one

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      3. Shifting from APS-C to full frame has also meant an almost entirely new set of lenses too. (We won’t talk about sticker shock…)
        Strangely enough the new super telephoto will mean I can get closer to birds – but even more so on the old camera (because of APS-C). Other than that things might look slightly sharper, but downsized for the web I suspect it may not be that noticeable.

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  9. Now, that’s a proper swamp, Dave. Great photos and story. Really like the last photo. And any reference to Treebeard is good. He has always been my favorite Hobbit character. We will be in North Carolina in mid-July, Covid-19 and civil unrest allowing. Our kids have rented a large house on the outer banks to help Peggy celebrate her 70th birthday. We were supposed to be cruising the Rhine. Oh well… –Curt

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    1. I like to end my posts on a strong note – that pic seems to be popular. Good luck with NC. We’re supposed to be up in Canada, Vancouver Island, diving, end of July. We’ll see how that goes…

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    1. Likewise, it kind of makes me wonder, when I see pictures of those picturesque old cities in Italy or other places, what sort of history might be behind those too. I suppose people are never all good or all bad. (Although a few take a run at it…)

      BTW, are you familiar with https://imageearthtravel.com/? She does some nice stuff from Italy, among other places.

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  10. What a garden John Grimké-Drayton created – with the not so acceptable use of slaves. It’s interesting, isn’t, how we often forget about our own country when we plan travels. I succumb to it myself, and then always enjoy all the more when I do travel in my own country. Maybe surprisingly?

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    1. I suspect the slaves were more used in the rice fields, but he probably did have help. I have but fleeting memories of Norway, and most of it from a train window, but it did seem like there was a lot of beauty there.

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  11. Beautiful photos as always, Dave. We stopped in Charleston once, but at the time we were doing “destination” driving rushing from point A to point B and hurried along. i don’t recall if we saw Magnolia Plantation [we saw a plantation] and that, in itself, says a lot about destination driving. We shall have to go back with our eyes more open this time.

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  12. Lovely photos, particularly the opening one down the road, and those tree trunk reflections. Much better views than at the dried swamp.

    I suppose it’s common that many of us explore overseas more than we do at home. That might change with the current travel restrictions.

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    1. The opening shot seems almost stereotypical for a southern plantation – not that I’ve seen many southern plantations. I like the shot, although it’s kind of busy. Having had the tree reflections and birds at Magnolia for an appetizer and based on Beidler Forest’s website, I had very high expectations with it as the next stop… (Sigh.)

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  13. What a treat to stroll through a favorite part of the world. You must have enjoyed being in such a different part of the world (maybe not the weather!). We used to spend two weeks at Easter on the Georgia coast when I was a child living in NY/NJ. I love those old live oaks, and the Spanish moss, of course, which is actually a flowering plant without roots, as you know. The flowers are so small you can hardly see them – I didn’t know that when I used to go there so I never looked for them. I love seeing the Green heron, too – they’re like little bullets when they hunt. The oak photos are may favorites though. 🙂

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  14. Wonderful write-up and images! I visited this plantation some years back when the azaleas were blooming and as I recall it was quite busy at that time. When you posed the first question about the wife I was thinking, set her free, like a butterfly! I like the tree tunnel in B&W.

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    1. Hi Denise. Sorry for the late response, I just noticed your comment. I imaging see the plantation when the azaleas were blooming (and the water levels probably higher) must have been a special experience – if you could get away from the crowds.

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  15. Love all your photos Dave, but in particular the one of the Ashley river foliage. Beautiful shot. Fun for us to also see the bamboo component of the plantation. Bamboo loves water and therefore will usually be found next to rivers. Swamps are fine too.

    That is one fine wide veranda in front of the house. Love the sentiment of his buying his wife a whole acreage of flowers rather than a mere bouquet. That’s the spirit. I am still waiting for my fields of flowers…

    Peta

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