Southern Living is a nice magazine produced by nice people about a nice place called the South. Everybody I work with is nice. No one yells, no one cusses, no one brings firearms or anthrax to work, no one posts naked pictures of themselves on the internet (well, no one that you’d want to see), and no one runs puppy mills. We’re nice.
Thus, it came as a big surprise when the lead story I wrote for the March 2010 issue (currently on newsstands) generated a firestorm of criticism. The issue showcases Charleston, South Carolina, a city that epitomizes the beauty and gracious living for which the South is known. I proclaimed Charleston “the South’s garden gateway,” because so many of the iconic plants that define our landscapes came not from North America, but were brought here on ships from their native Asia through the bustling colonial port of Charleston. Among those plants — crepe myrtle; mimosa; sweet olive; Indica azalea (shown above on the banks of the Rice Mill Pond at Charleston’s famous Middleton Place); and gardenias, pictured on the cover at left. In fact, the first gardenias grown outdoors in the U.S. were planted in the Charleston garden of their namesake, Dr. Alexander Garden, in 1762.
Now, that’s a nice story, isn’t it? So why are people mad at me? Because I committed the mortal sin of trying to be objective. Man, I’ll never do that again!
The source of the controversy is another iconic plant of the South, the camellia. Most sources credit its introduction to the South to French botanist, Andre Michaux, who established the South’s first botanical garden just north of Charleston in 1786. Records indicate that some of the earliest camellias planted in a private garden appeared at Middleton Place in the early 1800’s and were gifts from Andre Michaux to Henry Middleton.
According to the folks at Middleton Place, Henry Middleton planted 4 camellias, one at each corner of his parterre garden. It was a double red they called ‘Reine des Fleurs’ (“Queen of Flowers”). Only one of them survives today, the source of the flowers you see in the photo below.
And that is why people (including some at nearby Magnolia Plantation, another beautiful must-see garden) call me a horticultural heretic. They say Michaux couldn’t have given Middleton ‘Reine des Fleurs’, because ‘Reine des Fleurs’ wasn’t named until 1845 and Michaux died in 1802.
I included that tidbit in my first draft of the Charleston story that I sent for checking to both Middleton and Magnolia. Shortly after, I received a phone call from Middleton, complaining about what I’d written. They said there were actually two ‘Reine des Fleurs’ — one given by Michaux and named by the Middletons and a totally different one officially named ‘Reine des Fleurs’ in 1845 by the people in charge of naming such things. So therefore, Middleton Place still claims to have Michaux’s oldest surviving camellia.
To avoid devoting my entire story to the RDF issue and the and thereby encourage most readers to immediately recycle the March issue, I omitted the controversy altogether. That’s when certain camellia-philes (who probably also collect beer cans, burned-out light bulbs, and giant balls of string) got furious. Here’s a sampling from a camellia forum:
“It saddens me that Southern Living has bowed to the “Middleton Place Mafia”! Middleton Place has been caught in a LIE! Southern Living is perpetuating the LIE!”
“When I write an article, I do my homework to make sure that what I am writing is true. Shame on Southern Living for propagating a myth that they can not prove is true or false.”
“If you want to write stories without verifying sources or determining the accuracy of the facts, perhaps the National Inquirer (sic) would be more suited for you.”
For the record, I have always dreamed of writing for the National Inquirer.
The Grump did not bow to the Mafia (although if Michael Corleone showed up at my front door, I think I would). I simply refused to devote a great deal of space to a subject that interested maybe 10 readers.
Camellia-spat aside, if you’re interested in the history of Southern plants — when they got here and when they first appeared — I encourage you to order a copy of Gardens and Historic Plane Antebellum South by landscape architect and garden historian James Cothran. You’ll be surprised to learn how many of the plants you grew up with and thought were native actually entered the South from abroad through such ports as Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans. The Grump used this book extensively in researching his story and found its meticulous research invaluable and fascinating.