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Magnolia Plantation ...

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Magnolia Plantation - South Carolina

Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 04-10-10

Azaleas and Live oaks
Azaleas and Live oaks near driveway, Magnolia Plantation - Joe Kegley


Magnolia Plantation

Magnolia Plantation - Joe Kegley

Best known for its magnificent gardens of camellias and azaleas (as opposed to the actual mansion), Magnolia Plantation resides along the west bank of the Ashley River near Charleston SC. One of the earlier plantations of the Carolina Colonies, ownership has stayed within the same family for over 300 years.

The actual residence has been rebuilt three different times. The original home, completed sometime in the 1680's, was destroyed by accidental fire. The second home was burned in 1865 by Sherman's troops or possibly the freed slaves. The third and current structure was originally a cottage in Summerville of the former owner Rev. John Grimke Drayton. He had the cottage disassembled, then floated the assembly down the Ashley River, where it was reassembled and mounted on the burned ground floor walls.

This current structure has gone through a couple of phases of its own through the years. First a porch was added that surrounds the house. Later the house was extended south and west with the addition of the present living room, dining room, two upstairs bedrooms, and a water tower. Some of the porch area was lost due to these additions. The final phase, performed by the current owner, extends the porch around the house again.

The reconstruction years after the Civil War were particularly tough on owner Rev John Grimke Drayton. In order to rebuild, he had to sell his sea island plantation and sold much of his Magnolia property to mining companies, who then mined the three foot strata of phosphate which resided under the Magnolia acreage. The Rev. Drayton also opened Magnolia's gardens to the public in 1870 to generate cash flow, making it one of the earliest man-made tourist attractions.

Future owners would expand the gardens and attractions, later adding a nature boat ride through a 125 acre ricefield/waterfowl habitat, a nature train, a petting zoo, and the Audubon Swamp Garden. In addition, nature trails for cyclist and hikers were added which wind through much of the property woodlands and dikes.

Long Bridge
Long Bridge on Big Cypress Lake, Magnolia Plantation - Joe Kegley

The Gardens:

Azaleas at edge of Big Cypress Lake

Azaleas at edge of Big Cypress Lake - Joe Kegley

While known world wide for its amazing displays of azaleas and camellias in its informal gardens, Magnolia's original garden started from a smaller formal design. Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann Fox, created this formal garden near the original house and named it Flowerdale, probably around the same time as completion of the home (1680's). Considered by some to be the oldest continuously cultivated flower garden in North American, the brickwork and pathways of this older garden still exists today and are part of the garden tour. Flowerdale's main centerpiece contains formal arrangements of annuals set within triangular beds enclosed by boxwood hedges.

The most extensive expansion of the gardens took place during the ownership of Rev John Drayton. Upon inheritance in the 1840s, Reverend Drayton began to expand the gardens in an English informal style. He imported camellias (and other plants his wife liked) supposedly to lure his bride south from her native Philadelphia. He wanted to make the gardens as romantic as possible to make her forget any desire to return to Philadelphia. The Rev. Drayton was among the first to utilize Camellia japonica in an outdoor setting, realizing that Magnolia had the perfect environment with its acidic soil and mild winters. He is also said to have introduced the first azaleas to America.

After emancipation, growing rice was no longer economical. So the Reverend expanded the garden by having some of the rice fields dredged to create deeper ponds and added a network of footpaths that meander through the property and around these ponds. More camellias and azaleas were added to the newly created pathways.

Azaleas, Magnolia Gardens

Azaleas, Magnolia Gardens - Joe Kegley

The Reverend Drayton built a number of footbridges across the ponds. Probably the most famous is the Long Bridge which crosses Big Cypress Lake. This bridge is a popular one with photographers and artists and has appeared in various publications.

Magnolia Plantation's camellia collection eventually became the largest in North America. The collection has grown to several thousand plants with over 900 varieties. Approximately 150 varieties have come from the plantation's own nursery or from natural hybrids found within the garden.

Winding Path at Magnolia Gardens

Winding Path at Magnolia Gardens - Joe Kegley

Best Flowering Times

  • Azaleas - between the last two weeks in March and the first two weeks of April. Call the Magnolia Plantation Office before you go to validate blooming conditions. A harsh winter could mean the azaleas bloom late, a mild winter and the azaleas may bloom early.

  • Camellia japonica - blooms from January through April. Peak is usually the last week in January.

  • Camellia sasanqua - blooms October through December.

Nature Perspective

In addition to the cultivated and "cared for" flowering variety of plants, the gardens have some very nice live oaks, water tupelo, and bald cypress trees, many of which are laden with spanish moss within their branches. Finding just the right tree with spanish moss (and the right light) can produce an eerie, haunting feel to one's photographs.

Raccoon looking for garbage at Magnolia Gardens

Raccoon looking for garbage at Magnolia Gardens - Joe Kegley

Most wildlife will be observed around the garden lakes, rice field impoundments, or the Ashley River. Expect to encounter alligators in or near Big Cypress Lake. An occasional marsh rabbit or cottontail might also make an appearance within the garden area.

Expect to see Hermit Thrushes bouncing around like robins during the very early spring before they migrate north. One may also hear Ruby-crowned Kinglets singing in the very early spring, before they too migrate to their northern territory. Resident Northern Parulas are especially vocal during the spring.

American Coots and Moorhens can be observed in the area of the garden near the old rice field.

If you stay until dusk you might be fortunate to see a raccoon roaming around the garden paths looking for dropped food items.

There is no wilderness experience to speak of. You will definitely not find any solitude in the gardens, though you might on some of the bike paths or walking the dike that encloses the old rice field next to the Ashley River. Expect crowds during the spring time.

Photography Perspective

I found the business hours of the plantation somewhat difficult to work with for photography. The hours of business are 8:00 am to dusk from March to October. The exposure range (highlights and shadows) on sunny days in the early spring can be extreme and are easily apparent by 8:00 am in some of the most photogenic areas. A way around this is to come on very overcast days, photograph 30 minutes before dusk, or make arrangements with the staff to get in by 6:30 so you can be setup at your desired location by 6:45am. One thing you will miss by shooting in the evening is the early morning mist rising from the garden lakes, in combination with the spanish moss this can make somewhat surreal and eerie compositions.

While I never obtained the images I desired from Magnolia Plantation, I still thoroughly enjoyed the gardens and did in fact learn a few things about composition. I have viewed some exceptional photography taken on the plantation grounds from other folks.

Gear/equipment Suggestions

  • Money - This is a tourist attraction and a good one at that. There is a cost for entry that is used to maintain the grounds and gardens.

Location and Points of Interest

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (Google interactive map)

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Additional Information

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