Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Magnolia Plantation located outside of Charleston considers itself the oldest natural garden in America.  It has been in the Drayton family since 1676 and today is home to the twelfth and thirteenth generations who currently manage it.  This property is really big with 500 acres of grounds and over 70 acres of gardens.  Visiting Magnolia takes a little planning as there are many available activities:  House tour, nature boat tour on the river and former rice fields, tram tour of the property, slave cabins tour, self-guided swamp walk and gardens exploration.  When you arrive to the ticket window you have to decide what to see as everything is not inclusive with admission, but additional price.  Above is a picture of the long driveway into the plantation.

I started out with a walk through the Audubon Swamp Garden.  The duckweed covers the top of the water with a neon yellow-green color which I think looks cool and is common to the wetlands.  A sign here noted that lots of duckweed is a sign that a swamp is healthy.   This is a good sized swamp and great for spotting birds, alligators and turtles.  There is a heron and egret rookery and I saw a number of them sitting on nests in the trees.  I was able to see two Great Blue Heron with babies in the nests, but it was hard to get a good photograph of the babies.

My favorite sighting was the mother alligator with a baby resting its head on the mother’s nose.  I found this interaction of mom and baby rather sweet.   At first it was hard to see the baby but I thought there was something strange about the “bump” on the mother’s nose.  With all the duck weed covering the water, the baby was almost camouflaged.  I also saw two other babies close by – if you look closely you can see the head of another one in the upper middle of the photo above.  I left the area for a few minutes but came back to show another couple how to find the baby gators.  The mother had moved further away from the pathway, leaving several babies alone and closer to the pathway.  We were surprised the mother was not more protective.

After my swamp walk I headed for a tour of the house which is beautiful inside and out.  This is not the original home as it had to be rebuilt twice.  First it burned down from a fire and the second time it was damaged during the Civil War.   Although a successful rice farmer before the War, Mr. Drayton was almost penniless after as he had invested in Confederate money which became worthless.  His main asset was the hundreds of acres of plantation property and developed gardens.  In 1870, he decided to open his gardens for tours giving people in the city the opportunity to visit a country estate.  The popular tours saved the plantation financially and have been given here ever since.  Since the plantation is located on the Ashley River early visitors would often come by boat as it was much faster travel from Charleston than by the poorly developed and slow roads.

I skipped the tram and nature boat tours but took the slave cabins tour.  It was like being in a history class because the guide had us sit down in front of the cabins and went over the history of slavery from the beginning of the trade in West Africa to slaves being shipped to America  where Charleston became the largest entry port.  There are four remaining cabins at Magnolia and each is set up for a different time period in the history of the plantation.

The first cabin (above) shows the early years of slavery when slaves had few to no furnishings and a family crowded into one room.  The cabin had two rooms built to hold two families.  In a loft above the sleeping mats were stored.  Slaves used a wooden mortar and pestle that you can see in the photo to pound the shell of the rice off the grain.  This took skill because if the grain was cracked it reduced the quality and therefore the price of the rice.  After the pounding was done, the rice was winnowed in the basket you can see on the fireplace to get the loose shell away from the grain.

The second to the last cabin was covered with newspapers on the walls and ceiling for insulation as shown above.  This cabin showed a time period after the Civil War when it would have been lived in by sharecroppers.  I noticed how the floor boards and walls had many cracks in them, so keeping the cabins warm and dry must have been very difficult.  At Magnolia one slave descendant lived on the property in one of the other cabins until 1969 without any modern conveniences.   He raised 13 children here and they cooked on a wood fireplace, used a water pump and outhouse.  He added a few more rooms as his family grew.  The cabin he occupied had been wall papered which was peeling away from the wall.  These cabins are an important reminder of a tragic time in the history of our country and a lesson to be learned of how slaves really toiled and lived to build up and maintain a plantation such as Magnolia.

I spent the rest of my time touring the gardens which are quite extensive.  Magnolia prides itself on being a “romantic” garden which does not try to control or keep nature out but combines the gardens with nature.  The main flower features here are the azaleas and camellias.  The camellias had for the most part already bloomed but the azaleas were quite lovely.  They probably would have been even prettier a week or two later as it didn’t look like they were in the peak of full bloom yet.  I did think the azaleas at Middleton Place had a better display.  (I previously did a review of these gardens).    My favorite spot at Magnolia was the beautiful Long Bridge (above) that was built in the 1840’s and spans Cypress Lake.  It is a favorite bridge of photographers.  I found it quite captivating.

There are other bridges here and I really felt like I was in a time gone by as I crossed this small bridge located near the Ashley River.  The oak trees and Spanish moss gave it a romantic allure.

It was a great day with lots of good exercise walking around.   It is a popular place so can be crowded but a must see in the Charleston area.

Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation and Gardens”

  1. Beautiful spot, amazing shot with the alligator and baby. For me the most interesting bit would be the slaves quarters as well. The book Roots had such a great impact on me and to add further visuals would be great. Great respect for people who can live without the modern conveniences as you say, because I know I am so reliant. Very interesting

    1. Matt, great to hear from you! Yes, what people have had to endure without even the basic conveniences we know today. In reading a book on ex slaves that were interviewed in the 1930’s, I was surprised at how long they had lived in spite of such a wretched life filled with constant hard toil and little provisions. It really showed the power of the human spirit and will to go on!

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