Want 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.