Charleston's storied past is rife with tales of hard-fought wars, lost fortunes and gritty determination, but none is more heart-warming than the true-life love story set in the beautiful Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.
Three centuries in the making, the 500-acre Ashley River estate is home to America's last large-scale romantic garden and one of the finest camellia collections in the world. But it is the story behind this botanical treasure that would make Cupid swoon.
Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann established the first gardens on the property upon moving to the new English colony of Charles Towne in 1679. Some 150 years later, their descendant, John Grimké Drayton, turned it into an enduring legacy of love for his sweetie.
While studying at the Episcopal seminary in New York, the young Drayton courted and married Julia Ewing, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia attorney. To make his new bride feel more at home in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Drayton set about "to create an earthly paradise in which my dear Julia may forever forget Philadelphia and her desire to return there."
Most girls would have been happy with a bouquet of flowers.
Drayton learned about romantic gardens during his studies in England. Unlike France's formal gardens, the English romantic garden design emphasizes soft, natural landscaping.
Tom Johnson, director of gardens for Magnolia Plantation, compared the two styles this way: "Formal gardens control nature; romantic gardens cooperate with nature."
It takes a crew of 20 full-time horticulturists and 100 master gardener volunteers to maintain Magnolia Plantation's 60 acres of romantic gardens, which include the Biblical Garden, Herb Garden, Camellia Garden and Barbados Tropical Garden, as well as the 60-acre Audubon Swamp Garden, named after the famed ornithologist and artist who visited the swamp to obtain waterfowl specimens for two of his iconic bird paintings.
Opened to the public in 1870, the gardens are credited with saving the plantation from ruin after the American Civil War and the end of the prosperous rice cultivation.
Today, the 11th generation of Draytons is working to restore the plantation gardens to their historical significance. This fall, more than 100 varieties of pre-1900s camellias and azaleas will be planted in the estate.
"We found them in two graveyards in southern France," Johnson said. "Thirty of these varieties have never been planted in the United States."
A former national horticulturist for the American Camellia Society, Johnson is passionate about the restoration of one of the world's most beautiful gardens.
"I love the idea of recreating Eden," he said. "I've never cared for gardens that look like little tin soldiers in a row."
In addition to the romantic gardens, Magnolia Plantation also features a Reconstruction-era home, horticultural maze, antebellum slave cabins, a petting zoo and a blackwater cypress and tupelo swamp, once a reservoir for the rice fields.
In the late spring and early summer, the Audubon Swamp Garden rookery comes alive with hundreds of nesting heron, egrets and anhinga. Every Sunday from 8:30 to 11 a.m., birding specialist Perry Nugent leads walks through the plantation and swamp garden, helping visitors spot some of the 260 birds that have been seen on the grounds.
It would be easy to spend a day in this historic Charleston Plantation and not see all it has to offer. Take your time, stop and smell the gardenias and enjoy this magnificent floral Valentine.