Birthplace of Southern Gardening — Charleston, South Carolina

April 1, 2009 | By | Comments (15)

T&IWant Want to know where Southern gardening began? Then do what I’m doing now. Come to Charleston, South Carolina. Many of the iconic plants so essential to our style of gardening first appeared here. Like Southern Indica azaleas, for instance.

Meet Taylor Drayton Nelson and his uber-friendly German shepherd, Isis. Taylor is the latest in a long line of Draytons that have been in South Carolina since pretty much the beginning of time. He’s the head honcho at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, just across the Ashley River from Charleston. Magnolia bills itself as the “the South’s last romantic garden.” I was without female accompaniment, so I can’t vouch for the romantic part. But it was here that Southern Indica azaleas (the big azaleas that can grow 6-10 feet tall) first appeared in the mid-1800’s. Many of the original azaleas remain and their progeny graces gardens throughout the South.


Swarms of tourists descend upon Magnolia Gardens at the height of the spring bloom, which this year, is right now. The spectacle of azaleas, wisteria, and dogwood flowers reflected in the inky mirror of a cypress pond is breathtaking. I guess that’s where the romance comes in. Taylor is working to restore the gardens to their original look, showcasing these plants in a naturalistic setting. He and camellia and azalea guru, Tom Johnson, are also researching the many old camellias and azaleas in the gardens and attempting to identify them from old records, so they can be propagated and saved for future generations. Taylor showed me a weathered, hand-written notebook, well over a century old, that lists many of the plants found at Magnolia. Paging though it is like taking a trip through time.


I first visited Magnolia Plantation and Gardens about 25 years ago while on a trip with my brother down the East Coast to Florida. We were given a tour by the previous owner, the late Drayton Hastie, who passed away a few years ago. Drayton’s ashes are entombed in a box inserted about 20 feet up into the trunk of a large live oak. He said from there he could keep an eye on the gardens to see that Taylor did things right.

I think right now he’s smiling.


  1. Edilma Mendoza

    This Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is beautiful and interesting.

    December 16, 2014 at 9:05 pm
  2. gwen

    thanks for this

    June 30, 2014 at 10:37 am
  3. BackinCharleston

    Wow…I remember when Taylor was a kid, and I worked for Mr. Hasties…things have changed there, and it’s SO wonderful no matter what time of year…but spring and early fall are my favorite time of the year.

    August 29, 2009 at 4:25 pm
  4. Grumpy Gardener

    Magnolia Plantation looks even better now. Taylor Drayton Nelson has done a very good job and is working with plant guru Tom Johnson to identify the many very old camellias and azaleas on the place that have all but disappeared from modern gardens.

    April 16, 2009 at 8:59 am
  5. Melissa

    Visited Charleston and Magnolia Plantation about 15 years ago – absolute beautiful place. I missed the azaleas, they are gorgeous – thanks for posting!

    April 14, 2009 at 1:03 pm
  6. MNGarden

    I have just added Magnolia Gardens to my Famous Gardens Page.

    April 4, 2009 at 5:23 am
  7. Grumpy Gardener

    It’s all a matter of taste. I’ll bet 99% of the people who look at this combination think it’s pretty. Of course, a lot of people think Paris Hilton is pretty.

    April 2, 2009 at 9:27 pm
  8. Nell Jean

    Nobody ever had too much money or too many azaleas.
    Why do they put the orange tints next to the pinks? In my eyes, that’s much worse than ‘more than one color’ of crape myrtle, which always go together.

    April 2, 2009 at 11:13 am
  9. Jean

    I stand in awe of the Grumpian talent.

    April 2, 2009 at 10:49 am
  10. Grumpy Gardener

    I love all the native buckeyes. Very underappreciated plants.

    April 2, 2009 at 9:46 am
  11. Isaac

    Nice scarlet buckeye.

    April 2, 2009 at 7:26 am
  12. Grumpy Gardener

    Jean, there is no such thing as luck. There is, however, incredible talent, which the Grump has in abundance.
    Cameron, the bridge was too obvious. All the tourists shoot from the bridge.
    Sarah, welcome to Grumpiana. You will find it the light of your life.

    April 2, 2009 at 6:50 am
  13. Sarah

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    April 1, 2009 at 11:59 pm
  14. Cameron (Defining Your Home Garden)

    One of my favorite gardens! I love the bridge… where’s your bridge photo, Grumpy? Do they still rent bikes to ride along the paths beside the marshes? That was great fun (but years ago).
    I struggle so much with this time of year. Do I work in my garden, or go visit all the glorious gardens? 🙂

    April 1, 2009 at 12:01 pm
  15. Jean

    Beautiful! I see a buckeye tree in the foreground. Mine is almost in bloom too.
    Grump you are one lucky garden writer!

    April 1, 2009 at 9:57 am

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