When Mom wants to tour gardens, the kids prefer fauna to flora, and Dad needs a dose of history and nature, what’s a family to do? Visit Charleston, South Carolina’s Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, of course!
Glorious Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
Many moons ago, when I worked at a local advertising agency, I served as the editor-in-chief of South Carolina’s tourism magazine, Smiles. Along with my editing duties, I also wrote many of the articles. I covered the beaches, pirate legends, destination weddings, a goat farm, and even a few gardens. However, I never visited one of South Carolina’s most famous landmarks until recently.
Boy. What a missed opportunity for a tourism article.
History Lessons on the Sly
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, located along the Ashley River in Charleston, is the quintessential example of southern charm.
Ancient oaks drip with Spanish moss and winding paths burst with azalea blossoms, transporting you to a pre-Civil war era.
In fact, some sections of Magnolia Gardens are more than 325 years old, making them the oldest unrestored gardens in America.
Open to the public since 1870, the plantation remained in the Drayton family for three centuries, with each generation expanding the property. Today, the plantation includes many elements designed to entertain families, while covertly providing a history lesson or two.
A Tour through Southern History
The place was founded in 1676 by Thomas and Ann Drayton, who journeyed from Barbados to establish a rice plantation in South Carolina. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens survived adversity to tell tales dating from the American Revolution to the Civil War and beyond. Its strategic location on the banks of the Ashley River ensured accessible transportation for trade and travel. In fact, the current house (the third house in more than three centuries to grace the site) originated in Summerville, South Carolina—and arrived at Magnolia Plantation by means of the Ashley River following the Civil War.
(Perhaps that’s how the term “houseboat” originated—as locals watched the house floating on a barge down the river!)
Tours of the home provide visitors with a flavor of a privileged life in the 19th century, while the popular “From Slavery to Freedom” tour shows the reality of life for African Americans on the plantation. As part of the tour, visitors can view five historic slave cabins dating from 1850 and learn about the rich Gullah history of the region.
Communing with Nature
Obviously, as a garden writer, the main appeal of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is the gardens! However, while my family will tolerate my obsessive flower photography fairly well, I knew they’d need more entertainment than memorizing Latin names of the various flora on the property. Fortunately, directly upon arrival, we discovered the petting zoo, a perfect place to entertain kids whose parents drag them along to look at flowers and learn about history.
Who doesn’t love a petting zoo? Although our kids are 10 and 14, I think they’ll be like my husband and me—we still love petting zoos.
The zoo and nature center showcase both the domestic animals representative of plantation life, as well as species indigenous to the area—gray fox, beaver, bobcat, and birds of prey. A reptile house also entertains visitors unafraid of slithery creatures. (While our kids cooed at the snakes, one woman experienced a near panic attack when her significant other tried to persuade her to take a peek.)
Animals abound throughout the plantation. Our equestrian-crazed girl happily petted horses while we ate a snack at the Peacock Café.
Once we’d loaded the kids up with animal love, it was finally my turn—we headed to the gardens.
Touring 300 Acres by Tram, Boat, Bike, or Foot
Many options are available to tour the property. You can bring your bikes and ride throughout the plantation on trails. You can hop on the tram or boat for a guided tour. Much to the chagrin of the kids, we opted to wander the gardens on our own. And I’m glad we did.
From the formal gardens…
to a horticultural maze, where I may have experienced a little panic when I couldn’t find the exit…
…to wildlife spotting…
…and hidden history sown throughout the plantings, the experience left me breathless—and eager to reinvent our gardens at home.
The overall structure of the gardens represents a cooperation with nature instead of a strict cultivation, like its neighbor, Middleton Place. Designed to complement the natural ponds and landscape, as well as the river banks, the Drayton family desired to create a peaceful landscape where “humanity and nature are in harmony.”
And harmonious it is. With graceful, winding paths leading through the property, visitors find themselves wandering aimlessly by centuries-old trees……while exploring native foliage and blooms, perfect for a little hide-and-seek while Mom examines heritage camellias.
Garden Geek Fact: A Drayton ancestor first cultivated camellias as an outdoor plant. Until the 1820s, Camellia japonica strictly resided in greenhouses and conservatories. Magnolia Gardens provided the perfect temperate climate and now boasts the oldest and most extensive camellia collection in the country.)
Shady gazebos, hidden history, and abundant wildlife provide the perfect tour for both garden writer, spouse, and children.
Even the pathway along the Ashley River, the lifeblood of the plantation, now features elaborately designed perennial and annual boarders that stretch for miles.
Because we visited on our way home from vacation in Isle of Palms, we didn’t have time to take advantage of all of the tours.
Creatures of the Swamp
We did, however, spend several hours investigating the Audubon Swamp Garden, which was the highlight of the day for the kids and my husband, Peter. (I loved it, too, but I cursed myself for not having my good camera lens. Must return during nesting season!) Thousands of plant and animal species coexist among the black water cypress and tupelo gum trees.
Formerly a fresh water reservoir used for rice cultivation, the garden now hosts local mammals, birds, and reptiles, including bald eagles, heron, egrets, otters, turtles, and alligators. Boardwalks and bridges provide an up-close experience throughout the swamp. (Make sure if you visit during the summer to wear ample mosquito repellent or long sleeves. Or both.)
I’ll admit–my family initially seemed only to tolerate the idea of a garden outing to appease me. But by the end of our time at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, they agreed—we need a return visit! From the animal interactions to the gorgeous gardens to the history throughout, it catered to all of our interests.
Of course, now I’m inspired to add even more camellias to my collection. (Peter may not be thrilled that we visited the gardens, after all.)
For my fellow plant nerds, peak camellia season is November-January, and March kicks off the amazing azalea display. Don’t miss it! If you’re as flower obsessed as I am and want to plan your visit based on bloom schedule, click here.
Hmmm…maybe we need more azaleas, too…
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and the Audubon Swamp Garden are open 365 days per year.
Address: 3550 Ashley River Road, Charleston, South Carolina
Hours: November-February 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m./March-October 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
General Admission to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens includes the gardens, petting zoo, the conservatory, the orientation theater (including a film about the plantation’s history), the old African American cabin, access to the Peacock Café and gift shop. All-inclusive pass includes all general admission attractions, plus admission to the house, nature tram and nature boat tours, the “Slavery to Freedom” tour, and the Audubon Swamp Garden.