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?
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.