Today, walking amidst the red, pink, and white blooms in the camellia garden at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, it’s hard to believe that it came close to destruction 24 years ago, when Hurricane Hugo ripped through, sending giant pine, oak, and cedar trees crushing down on rare, centuries-old camellias. But good can spring from the most devastating events, and in this case, the natural disaster helped inspire a restoration of the oldest public gardens in America—a restoration that has ancient camellias at its very roots.
After the storm, then-owner John Drayton Hastie, Sr. sprang into action, bringing in helicopters to airlift fallen trees and spurring staff ahead on a major cleanup effort. Within weeks, the popular attraction had reopened to the public, but there was still much to be done. It took three years to clear the then-seven-acre camellia garden of debris, and even then, it was left missing many of the markers that had identified specific varieties among the hundreds growing there. Over the next decade, it was virtually ignored, slowly becoming impassable due to the wisteria, grape, and smilax vines that twined their way amidst the once-beautiful garden.
In 2002, Drayton Hastie, Sr. passed away, leaving the property to his two children, John Drayton Hastie, Jr. and Nona McAdoo Hastie, and five grandchildren, who became Magnolia Plantation and Gardens’ board of directors. And so began a new chapter for the landmark locale. “The board was devoted to the idea of taking the gardens back to their 1870s’ glory,” explains executive director Tom Johnson.
It was 1872 when the Rev. John Grimké Drayton opened Magnolia Gardens, his 28-acre labor of love, to the public. When he and his Northern-born wife, Julia, moved to Magnolia in 1840, they found a run-down formal English garden installed sometime after the reverend’s ancestors, Thomas and Ann Drayton, established the plantation in the 1680s. The reverend set to work gathering camellias and azaleas from conservatories in Boston and Philadelphia. “He wanted to create an earthly paradise where his dear Julia would forget her love of Philadelphia and her desire to return there,” says Johnson. “We ended up with today’s 120 acres of romantic gardens thanks to one man’s love for his wife.”
While he was completing his ministerial studies in England, the reverend first witnessed the trend toward romantic gardens, slightly overgrown landscapes that cooperate with nature, in contrast to formal green spaces with rigid lines and fixed flower beds. He filled his “paradise” primarily with azaleas and around 30 cultivars of camellia (no small feat when you consider that he was among the first to grow both types of plants outdoors in America).
Soon after the gardens opened, a prominent European newspaper dubbed them one of three two-star destinations in the United States, right along with Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. Visitors flooded in—Magnolia’s records show that some 10,000 people made the journey up the Ashley River on a single day in the early 1870s.
Today, Magnolia is the nation’s only remaining large-scale romantic garden. “And if you have the last romantic-style garden, you want it to be true to the vision of the man who created it—you want to preserve it,” says Johnson. For that reason, Magnolia’s board set into action a 20-year, multi-million-dollar restoration project that’s aimed at returning the landscape to its late-19th century beauty—from removing post-1900 gazebos and other buildings to refining the plant material.
An early step was hiring Miles Beach as the plantation’s camellia collection director in 2003. The author of four seminal books on camellias, Beach has hybridized six of his own cultivars, including one that was named “Camellia Japonica of the Year” by the American Camellia Society. And his father, of the same name, was a prize-winning camellia cultivator himself, who grafted camellias at Magnolia beginning in the 1950s, often with young Miles at his side. The younger Beach spent his adult years running an international information technology firm, but upon his retirement, Drayton Hastie, Jr.—who is particularly passionate about the estate’s camellias—lured him back to the plantation to revive the collection. While digging in pine straw and leaves to find the plant markers displaced during Hugo, Beach came upon many written in his father’s own hand.
In 2007, Beach’s friend Tom Johnson came on as Magnolia’s executive director. Johnson had worked at Atlanta’s Jimmy Carter Library and Museum for some 14 years—first as an apprentice under world-renowned Japanese landscape architect Kinsaku Nakane and later as facilities manager—before becoming national horticulturist at the Fort Valley, Georgia-based American Camellia Society. “Tom is very much a romantic horticulturist—he practices and loves the romantic style—so that was a big step forward in the restoration process,” says Beach.
Three years later, Magnolia enlisted the late Jim Cothran, a landscape architect and historian who specialized in garden restorations. Cothran spent two years first proving the historical significance of Magnolia’s romantic garden and then creating a blueprint of how the gardens should look—what needed to be done to regain 1870s authenticity.
“A top priority was under-planting the gardens with additional azaleas and camellias,” explains Johnson. “As a plant grows taller, it loses some of its denseness. We needed to bring back that density, which creates secluded-feeling areas and shapes the vistas the way they would have looked in the 19th century.” The problem was, the pre-1900 camellias (which the Magnolia team refers to as “ancient”) that they wanted to fill in are no longer readily available.
Over the years, many of the old cultivars have not only died off throughout the United States, but also from Magnolia itself. Thirty of the 151 camellias that were created (or hybridized, in plant speak) and named at Magnolia are missing from today’s collection. “We’d like to bring each of these back into the garden but also add other ancient cultivars, not only to help restore the gardens to the 1870s but to further the reverend’s original mission of preserving old camellias from extinction,” explains Johnson.
Together, the men have been tracking down ancient camellias from around the world, scheduling one international trip per year since 2011 to collect cuttings. First, they traveled to France and Belgium, where they gathered nearly 200 cultivars from six public gardens. Then Beach brought home some hundred more from Europe, including cuttings of ‘Middlemist’s Red’, considered the world’s rarest camellia since it grows in only two locations. This fall, they’ll return to Belgium in search of more treasures.
Once Beach and Johnson get the cuttings home, they cultivate them in greenhouses for about three years before moving them to a portion of the gardens they call the “nursery” where some 4,500 plants are under propagation. This gives the gardeners a chance to make sure that the new arrivals adjust well to our climate before they go into the main gardens.
However, planting them permanently isn’t as easy as cutting back one plant to make room for the new arrival. “In a romantic garden, man, God, and nature are meant to be in harmony together. It can never look like man is exhibiting control over the landscape, so we have to slip new plant material in amongst the older plants. That’s the biggest challenge,” says Johnson.
But the hard work has paid off. Since 2003, the size of the camellia collection—the largest in the country—has increased by 30 percent to include a total of 2,000 varieties. “The overall garden spaces have grown by five to seven acres as we bring new plant material in,” notes Johnson. In addition, “As we’re collecting cuttings, we’re building relationships with gardens around the world,” he says. “We want to keep Magnolia the international garden it’s always been.” To that end, the plantation began sponsoring a horticultural internship in 2009 that allows for two American college students to study in French gardens, and for two French students to work at Magnolia. It’s a program that Johnson hopes to grow in the near future.
The International Camellia Society has taken notice, too, designating Magnolia as a “Garden of Excellence” in 2012—a distinction bestowed upon only four other gardens in America and only 30 gardens in the world. But as far as Johnson is concerned, “We’re just at the first footsteps of a long journey.”
Tour the Camellia Garden
February is the perfect time to see much of the collection in bloom.
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens offers free guided tours with the price of admission ($15; $12 ages six-12).
3550 Ashley River Rd. (800) 367-3517, www.magnoliaplantation.com