On the other side of the brick ruins of the old plantation house at Middleton Place, the Ashley River flows directly toward you, reflecting the blue sky while snaking through the washed-out, pale green marsh grasses before disappearing. Just below your feet, an emerald green lawn flows in standing waves down a bluff to the disappearing river, punctuated by two perfect black ponds, mirror images of each other except for the different pattern of clouds reflected in each.
It’s an optical illusion, of course. The river does not disappear; it bends. The lawn is not in standing waves; the grassy hill is terraced. But the effect is mesmerizing, and it's one of the most beautiful things you can see on your trip to Charleston.
Middleton Place is just one of Charleston’s grand, enormous, breathtaking gardens. Those words are no exaggeration. The extensive gardens were all built by enslaved people before the Civil War on former rice plantations, and their grandeur has been preserved for visitors today. On your next trip to Charleston, along with the great food, lovely architecture, fascinating history and charming little pocket gardens of the historic peninsula, take a trip a few miles out of town to see sprawling gardens like no other.
The gardens of Middleton Place were first started in 1741, earning the distinction of being the oldest landscaped garden in America. True to the landscape architecture style of that time, the gardens are laid out in formal garden rooms, connected by green walkways that can feel like tunnels, centered around stone statues and bronze sundials and interwoven with peaceful canals and ponds. The classic-style gardens burst with camellias, azaleas and roses. Massive and ancient live oaks dot the landscape.
Classical gardens are built with geometric exactness, and you’ll see that in every garden room you visit. Look at a map of the entire grounds, and you’ll see the geometry of the entire plantation. It’s truly remarkable. And that terraced lawn overlooking the Ashley River—it is worth the price of admission itself. Garden tours led by enthusiastic and passionate guides bring the already gorgeous gardens to new life, so don’t miss the chance to take the tour.
Magnolia Plantations’s gardens are as lush, wild and overflowing as Middleton Place’s are formal and careful. Also located on the Ashley River and just a few short miles away, Magnolia Plantation feels completely different from Middleton Place. Magnolia is both the oldest public garden in the US and the last large-scale romantic-style garden in the United States. A romantic garden is in many ways the opposite of the classical, formal gardens and developed as a counterpoint to them. Instead of trying to control nature, the romantic-style garden is designed in harmony with nature and embraces the exuberance of plants and flowers and trees. At Magnolia, garden paths twist and wind around huge azaleas, Spanish moss hangs from every branch and little bridges over ponds and canals surprise the walker around many bends.
There is a suggested walk through the enormous garden, but you would do just as well to wander and allow yourself to be mesmerized and surprised at every turn. Late winter, when the camellias bloom, and early spring when the azaleas bloom, are the most spectacular time to visit, but anytime truly is beautiful.
The Audubon Swamp Garden, also on the grounds of Magnolia Plantation, gives visitors the chance to see a very different sort of nature. Boardwalks allow visitors to walk through a blackwater swamp full of trees and animals.
Boone Hall Plantation
Like Middleton Place, Boone Hall is home to formal flower gardens laid out in geometric precision. These flower gardens flank the front of the house and are beautiful in their own right. An enclosed butterfly garden allows visitors to see and experience dozens of butterflies up close, when in season.
But they aren’t the parts of the gardens that will take your breath away. That honor belongs only to the Alley of Oaks. The ¾ mile long road is flanked by 88 live oaks. First planted in 1743, the Spanish moss-cloaked trees now stretch to meet across the sandy road, making a light speckled leafy tunnel. The Alley has appeared in numerous films and TV programs, and is perhaps the most famous entrance to a plantation in the country.