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Visit Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, SC

Updated on February 17, 2017

The Plantation House

The house at Magnolia Plantation
The house at Magnolia Plantation | Source

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

A trip to Magnolia Plantation is more than a simple visit to a plantation—it is participating in a unique tradition. Magnolia's world-renowned grounds are America's oldest public gardens. Open since 1870, the beautiful, romantic gardens are home to hundreds of varieties of camellias and azaleas, as well as numerous other species. Amazingly, direct descendants of the original Drayton immigrant to Carolina have owned the plantation since the 1670s. Today, Magnolia is one of the nation's only plantations still owned by its founding family that is open to the public.

There are many attractions for the whole family at Magnolia: you can walk the garden trails, take a nature tram past former rice fields, tour restored slave cabins, ride a boat down the Ashely River, explore the Audubon Swamp Garden, visit animals in the petting zoo, or experience the historic home. I held a seasonal position as a house guide during the spring and summer of 2011, and this is my inside look at Magnolia and all it has to offer.

Wildlife

A blue heron—one of many types of bird you may see on the Nature Tram.
A blue heron—one of many types of bird you may see on the Nature Tram. | Source

Magnolia's Gardens, Nature Tram, and Boat

Because the azaleas and camellias are the garden's chief attraction, the gardens are busiest during the late winter and early spring. The Rev. John Grimke-Drayton began the gardens in 1843 after he inherited the property upon the death of his elder brother. He planted camellias and azaleas to give his wife, a New York City girl, something to love about their winters at Magnolia. Evidence suggests Rev. Drayton was the first person in North America to plant Asian varieties of azaleas outside. Before that, they were considered indoor plants.

After the Civil War, he was unable to afford his beloved gardens. Rather than lose them, he sold 1500 of his 2000 acres and opened the gardens to the public in 1870. They have been open every single year since that time, making them America's oldest continuously open public gardens.

The nature tram gives you a fantastic view of the property. You will probably alligators of all sizes and salt water birds like egrets, herons, and ibises. The tram takes you past the remnants of plantation-era rice fields, the fault line that caused The Earthquake (1886) and a Mississippian Native American mound. Changing tides and seasons, as well as wildlife that is free to roam, ensure that every ride on the nature tram is different. Nature trams usually depart every half an hour, but you should allow an hour for the trip. Because you are moving and usually in shade, the nature tram is a cool option, even during warmer months.

Similarly, the boat ride on the Ashely is a unique experience every time. It is usually open from late March until November, so it is not available if you visit during the winter months. Trust me—it gets cold out on the water, even here in South Carolina. I know it is not cold compared to other places, but once you add in significant humidity and remove all protection from the wind, boating in January is not fun. Make sure to allow a full hour for the experience if you want to take a boat ride.

The House at Magnolia Plantation.
The House at Magnolia Plantation. | Source

Magnolia's Plantation Home

Because I worked in the house, I have to be careful not to give away the entire tour in my description! The third, current home is the combination of a relocated 18th century structure and 1890s additions. After the Civil War, Rev. John had a pre-Revolutionary War cabin in the woods near Summerville, SC disassembled, barged down the Ashley River, and reassembled on a portion of the old home's foundation. This foundation originally belonged to the second home, which was constructed after the first home burned. While no one knows for sure, it is believed the first house, a large brick structure, was struck by lighting in the early 19th century.

Rev. John's elder daughter, Julia, married back into money and inherited the property after his death and added two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The home was actually lived in, at least part time, by members of the family until 1970, at which point it was opened to the public. This means that, for the the first 100 years, visitors to Magnolia only toured the gardens.

All pieces in the home today are antiques. There is a mixture of pieces traditionally owned by the family, including a portion of a Duncan Phyfe table allegedly pulled from the ashes of the second home, and pieces purchased into the family at a later date. One of the most unique features of the home is an extraordinarily complete set of 18th century 'exportware' China. It survived the second home fire because it was in Philadelphia with a 'loyalist' branch of the Drayon family that chose to side with the North. While tales of brother fighting brother in the Civil War are relatively common, two members of the Drayton family are the only known brothers to have actually commanded forces against each other. One, Thomas Fenwick Drayton, was the Confederate Brigadier General defending Port Royal, SC, and his brother, Percival Drayton, was the Union Naval Commander charged with taking the area.

If you wish to tour the home, allow 30-45 minutes. Also, photography is not allowed inside the home. Please make sure to have your cameras tucked away and cell phones turned to silent before entering the house. Once, a visitor answered a phone call during a tour I gave at Magnolia—please don't be the person that ruins the experience for everyone.

Slave cabins at Magnolia
Slave cabins at Magnolia | Source

"From Slavery to Freedom" Slave Cabin Tour

The relatively new slave cabin tour is the award-winning centerpiece of Magnolia's offerings. Three of the cabins were built prior to the Civil War, but one of them actually dates to around 1900. The four cabins are restored to different eras to give a feel for the families that inhabited them. One of the cabins, a consolidated double cabin, was lived in until 1969. Because Magnolia's gardens were open to the public shortly after emancipation, many of the formerly enslaved people returned to work as paid gardeners and caretakers. For some, tending the gardens at Magnolia is a family tradition. I was surprised to learn that, today, the grounds are still inhabited by both members of the Drayton family and descendents of former slaves on the plantation. If you want to see these cabins and learn their incredible story, allow 45 minutes of your day.

Miniature Horses at Magnolia

Miniature Horses at Magnolia
Miniature Horses at Magnolia | Source

The Petting Zoo

Called the petting zoo, the area is home to animals you don't want to pet, too! Luckily, these creatures, including snakes and hawks, are enclosed so you cannot accidentally pet them. Petting zoo animals include goats, deer, and rabbits. Donkeys and miniature horses live in a paddock next to the petting zoo, and other animals roam the grounds freely. The most popular animals at the site are the white peacocks. Frequently mistaken for albino peacocks, they technically are not. If you see one up close, look at its eyes and you can see they lack the pink/red appearance characteristic of albinos. "Normal" peacocks and peahens roam the grounds, too, but seeing one of the white peacocks fan his tale is a special treat. His tail, usually so colorful, takes on the appearance of old lace.

The whole site is very pet friendly, and you are welcome to bring your dog to the plantation. You may even bring your pets inside the historic home, as long as you carry them the entire time. I have actually seen people insist on holding some pretty big dogs for the whole tour! I love my dogs, but I'm not willing to hold a 70 pound critter for half an hour, so make sure to keep this in mind if you do bring the family pooch.

White bridge at Magnolia Plantation
White bridge at Magnolia Plantation | Source

Audubon Swamp Garden

Named for John Audubon, the Audubon Swamp Garden is a fantastic place to see wildlife in its natural habitat. Loved by photographers, it is open 345 days a year and may be visited along with the plantation, itself, or separately. While I've always felt that saying "Audubon painted here" is a little like saying "Washington slept here," Charleston does have a unique claim to the artist. Not only is he believed to have visited Magnolia as a guest of the Rev. John, but he made frequent visits to the city, published a book with a Charlestonian, and his sons married a Charleston Lutheran minister's two daughters!

Magnolia Plantation

A marker3550 Ashley River Rd. Charleston, SC 29414 -
Ashley River Rd, Charleston, SC 29414, USA
get directions

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Magnolia Plantation is one of the four most popular plantations in Charleston, South Carolina. In addition the highlights discussed above, Magnolia also has a cafe (with surprisingly delicious food—I ate lunch there frequently), a gift shop, a small museum, an orchidarium, and an excellent orientation film that includes interviews with members of the family.

For a comparative discussion of the four major Charleston plantations, and a guide to help you determine which you or your family would enjoy the most, please see my page here. Each site is slightly different and has its own unique character, so read up on each one and plan ahead to make the most of your stay in Charleston.

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    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 4 years ago from South Carolina

      I have visited Magnolia Plantation and found it a great way to learn about history and to also enjoy stunningly beautiful, park-like surroundings.

      You've done a great job of explaining the many attractions and the history of the Drayton family.

      Voted up across the board except for funny.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      interesting hub. Voted up.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      I'm glad you enjoyed your visit, happyboomernurse. When where you there? Maybe I was your guide! Thanks for the votes.

      Thanks for stopping by and voting, Pavlo. I love getting comments =)

    • denisemai profile image

      Denise Mai 4 years ago from Idaho

      What a wonderful, detailed hub. I would love to visit the Magnolia Plantation someday!

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you! I was afraid it might be a little too detailed, but I couldn't bring myself to leave anything out!

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 4 years ago from USA

      How exciting! I wish I'd have known about this when I lived in the south. I didn't know any of the plantations held tours. Your hub on this is full of cool trivia.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for stopping by, jellygator. You'll have to come back over to this coast again!

      The only thing more amazing than the number of plantation open to the public is the number of plantation not open to the public. I know of several right here in Charleston. It is incredible how many of these old homes and their grounds still exist.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Such lovely pictures of beautiful gardens and a very nice essay. I feel better about Georgia already, because we are close to Charleston. :) Have a great week.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Charleston is beautiful, but the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern is pretty awesome. I don't think it's worth the traffic for that alone, though.

      Thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 4 years ago from South Carolina

      I was there about 7 years ago during the winter season.

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      A very interesting and enjoyable hub, I would love to visit - but a bit too far for me!

      This was the next best thing, thank you and voted up.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      No, seven years ago I was in Charleston, but not working at Magnolia!

      Thanks for stopping by and voting, Movie Master, glad you enjoyed!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      It looks a great place to visit. I would love to see those ponies. Thanks for sharing this interesting hub topic.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for stopping by! Yes, the little guys are pretty cute. It's also cool because they essentially occupy the land-side lawn of the house, which probably would have been used for pasturing animals hundreds of years ago. Quadrupeds are a great way to mow your grass!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Unbelievable! I have never been there and have only seen these mansions in pictures. You did a wonderful job with this hub and the photos are fantastic.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks! I'm grateful to the fine folks on Flickr for the picture. I had some great ones, including awesome peacock pictures and funny goat ones, but I lost them in a computer crash = (

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Shoot...I love peacocks!

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

      Beautiful house - wish I could visit! I really envy that you worked there. Love to photos too.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Working there was a pretty good experience. They tried to hire me back this past spring! I told them thanks, but no thanks because my life is already too full. Thanks for stopping by, Judi Bee.

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