Magnolia Gardens: Preserving Nature and a Little History

This is another long one, but it was a long and eventful day.

Magnolia Gardens is the oldest public garden in the country. It is still owned and run by the same family who made their fortune growing rice in the 1600’s. Rice was the biggest cash crop before cotton in the south and it was the Barbados slaves who brought with them the knowledge of how to grow it in the muddy swamps of the Lowcountry. It made European immigrants rich while breaking the backs of slaves.

Perfect land for growing rice.

Originally, (1676) Mr. Drayton had 2,000 acres of land that was given to him as a wedding gift by his father. (What a wedding gift, huh?) The Draytons previously lived in Barbados and brought their slaves with them to the wide open state of South Carolina. Most of the rest we already know. Same old story, right? Anyway, when the Civil War came around, the nouveau-riche good old boys down south invested in confederate bonds, supporting the army and trying desperately to hang on to their pleasant lifestyle. When they lost the war, they also lost most, if not all of their investment money and land, and their giant houses were burned and looted. So, many of these plantation owners went from rich and genteel, to poor and barely scraping by.

So Mr. D. decided to open up what was left of the beautiful gardens (less than 500 acres) to the public and charge them for it. “People would pay a pretty penny to ride on a ferry from Charleston over here just to see the gardens,” according to the tour guide. And, other than the ferry ride, that’s the way it’s been for the last 400 years.

View of the Ashley River. Reminds me of my bike riding days in Beaufort.

Today, Magnolia Gardens is worth the fees and the mosquitoes and humidity, and all the walking. The staff are friendly and obviously love what they do, and the whole place is user-friendly. Our tour guide focused on the wildlife–alligators, deer, herons, egrets, owls, snakes and squirrels, and threw in some history now and then. There was a small zoo, which I will get to in a minute, but the place is so natural and open and wild. And something is always blooming there. We saw lots of irises and snapdragons and a few calla lilies as well as red amaryllises growing naturally out of the ground. Azaleas were either just finishing their bloom or getting ready.

There is a “main house” but it was under construction and probably looked like a lot of other fancy southern aristocrats’ homes that we’ve seen more times than necessary. Then there was the pretty white bridge where everyone who wants a selfie goes to pose. Nice bridge. Sorry, no selfie. Just a few older women trying to figure out how to take a selfie.

So we rode on this wagon/train thingy with a very enthusiastic guide who knew a lot of trivia about this or that animal. For example, did you know that turtles can breathe out of their butts? Well, it’s true. She explained it but I was busy taking pictures and didn’t listen. Something about a different form of hibernation where their metabolism slows down and the only air they need comes in and out of their rear ends. (see for more details if you’re interested.) A few minutes later I did hear her say that red tail hawks can catch mice so easily because they see in infrared and mice “relieve themselves” (pee) while running from place to place. Messy little creatures, huh? So, their urine creates a fluorescent trail which the birds follow and grab a quick meal. There was a lot of potty talk.

Moving on….Here are a few little scenes from the nature trail:

Our guide was such a good teacher and obviously loved her job. She was full of little known facts so it was hard to keep up with her. Then, as she was telling the story of how some slaves “just stayed on the land because they had nowhere else to go,” we were turning the corner in front of the slave/sharecroppers’ quarters, and suddenly the back end of our little wagon slipped off the road into a groove that you might call a small ditch. No one fell out or got hurt but it was tense for a minute or two. Sam and I were sitting on the off-the-road side in the back, about to be slapped in the face by a magnolia branch so I stood up and started waving my hands at her. She was chattering away….in her element…..

People started yelling, “Hey! We’re off the road back here. Hey! You need to stop!” And finally a guy behind us gave one of those sharp, shrill, fingers in the mouth whistle. That got her attention. She stopped and, with great concern, made sure everyone was ok, then decided this was a problem for someone with mechanical skills and gathered us all up to wait by a tree for the rescue train. (Note to self: I want to learn how to whistle like that, just in case I need to in the future.)

While we were waiting, I took these pictures:

In the end, for me it was all about the flowers and trees and animals, so that little “hitch” in the process quickly faded in to the background.

OK. Less history and drama, more pretty and cute.

How do I choose from the 100 or so photos of this gorgeous plantation? Here are just a few.

Then there was the zoo: Deer and a goat and a pig and a couple of noisy peacocks wandered around waiting for people to give them the treats that the place provided for a couple quarters. And chickens, several bossy chickens wandered around claiming territory, then moving on. In the fenced areas were turtles and owls and a white squirrel and snakes and a sleeping alligator. Lots of snakes, which I chose not to photograph.

So, bottom line, if you’ve gotten this far, Magnolia Gardens is a great place to visit, especially in April. Bring your camera or a smart phone, a good pair of walking shoes and an open mind. There is beauty here, attempting to make amends for the past.

Now, on to the next stop, then home! With all these images and memories I’m sure I’ll feel saturated for a while.

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