The Charleston area is known for having a variety of historic plantations that are popular with tourists and locals. Although there are a number of things to see at these places, I was most excited about the gardens. I love seeing garden plants and especially flowers in bloom. Before we sold our house, my flower beds in the spring, summer and fall were a big delight. I enjoyed cutting the flowers to bring inside the house or take to work. Growing a garden of flowers is not possible now, but in our travels I can enjoy the immense beauty of these southern gardens. Spring was the right time for us to be here because the azaleas, which the South grows so abundantly were blooming profusely.
Of the two main plantations I visited with lots of blooming azaleas, Middleton Place was my favorite. Middleton contains the oldest landscaped gardens in America and is a historic treasure. It was settled in the early 1700’s by the Middleton family who were rice farmers when rice was the most important cash crop in South Carolina. The Middleton men were also active in politics with Arthur one of the more prominent as a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Middleton Place has been run by the same family for over 300 years. The original home can be toured but I skipped the house tour and spent some time checking out the barns and stable yards before hitting the gardens in earnest. Sheep run freely on the grounds and a variety of other farm animals are kept here to give visitors a chance to see a working farm during the time period.
Crafters in period costume worked in their shops including a barrel maker, potter, blacksmith, candle maker and wool dyer. My favorite was the dyer who just finished a mustard colored batch using onion skin. I either did not know or had forgotten that you could get a natural dye from onion skin which is rather cool. I especially liked the blue yarn which was dyed from the indigo plant that grows on the plantation. At one time, growing indigo was another main cash crop in South Carolina. Dye created from the cochineal bug provided the pinkish color. This bug can be found on prickly pear cactus which has to be imported. While watching this crafter I thought how interesting it would be to take a class or learn how to dye in the traditional manner.
Middleton Place is a feast for the eyes with terraced lawns sweeping from the house to the Ashley River. The river was the main transportation source for the plantation as roads took so much longer. The property has a number of ponds and small lakes surrounded by huge oaks draped with Spanish moss. Several alligators swam by or lounged on the banks. The gardens were created in 1741 and continued to expand and change over the years. Azaleas were not introduced to South Carolina and grown here until about the 1840’s. There are now over 100,000 of them on this property! As I walked around I was amazed by the amount of azaleas. They bloomed en masse along many pathways and next to the long reflection pool pictured below.
I really enjoyed walking the trail along the “Azalea Hillside” where azaleas were planted in a more natural forest setting. Although they were gorgeous during my visit, some of the plants were not in full bloom and maybe more stunning a week or two later.
I am always a fan of a swamp and Cypress Lake had impressive views of azaleas reflected in the water along with cypress trees and hanging moss.
One of my favorite spots was the secret garden. I returned here again at the end of the day before closing time to sit on the bench and reflect on the beauty of the dogwoods, azaleas and statuary placed at each corner.
I spent several hours in the gardens dazzled by the beauty, strong color and abundance of the azaleas. It was hard to leave but my feet were tired from wandering and the day was coming to a close. The azaleas here at Middleton definitely had me in their power!
As always, thanks for reading! In my next blog I continue our adventures in South Carolina!