Visit Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, SC
The Plantation House
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.
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.
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.
"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
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.
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 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.