Alleyways of majestic live oaks, grand estate houses and old-world gardens filled with bright azaleas, bulb flowers and camellias are part of any story about the gracious living, hospitality and elegance of plantation life in the Colonial and antebellum South. Some of the oldest gardens in America are found at Charleston’s plantation homes. History and beauty abound making springtime at Charleston plantations an excellent time to visit.
A Little Plantation History
Charleston’s wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries was derived, in large part, from the plantation system. In the early 1700s, planters began the arduous process of clearing and diking inland swamps to provide water for cultivation and began experimenting with a variety of crops. The first attempts at rice growing proved futile, but in 1726 rice crops were finally successful. With this success came the first wave of economic prosperity. By the mid-1700s, another profitable crop was introduced: indigo, a plant that produced a valuable dye.
Charleston Harbor served as a major shipping port for the rice and indigo cultivated throughout the region. It was also the first and largest port to receive the fuel with which the plantation system ran: slaves.
With the abolition of slavery in 1865, the society characterized by the opulent lifestyles of the plantation owners and their families collapsed. Without the labor needed to operate them, many of the plantations were abandoned and then fell into ruins or burned. Fortunately, several of the plantations survived and continue to this day to make major contributions to the community as living centers of education and research, preservation and commerce.
The Charleston area has five plantations that are open to the public regularly, each uniquely reflecting various aspects of plantation life, as well as their vital roles in today’s Southern society.
Unique among plantation houses, Drayton Hall is the oldest unrestored plantation house in America open to the public. After seven generations, two great wars, and numerous hurricanes and earthquakes, the main house of this National Historic Landmark, built in 1738, remains in nearly original condition, showcasing three centuries of American history.
The main house is considered one of the finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the United States. In addition, the grounds represent one of the most significant, undisturbed historic landscapes in America.
It’s not uncommon for an archeological dig to be going on somewhere on the property, or for artisans of the building arts to be studying the structure to determine the most authentic way to reinforce or repair any deterioration to the house brought on by time.
Just down the road from Drayton Hall lies Magnolia Plantation & Gardens. Founded in 1676 by the Drayton family, Magnolia Plantation has also survived the centuries and witnessed the history of our nation unfold, from the American Revolution through the Civil War and beyond. It is the oldest public tourist site in the Lowcountry and the oldest public garden in America.
The Drayton family has occupied the plantation for three centuries. The current main house gives a glimpse of plantation life in the 19th century. The 10 rooms open to the public are furnished with early-American antiques, porcelain, quilts and other Drayton family heirlooms. Guides describe life in the 19th century, using the furniture and household objects to bring plantation culture alive.
Lessons in horticulture abound at Magnolia Plantation. Its gardens are of such beauty and variety that they have brought tourists from around the world to view them since they were open to the public in the early 1870s. However, some sections are more than 325 years old, making them the oldest unrestored gardens in America. Because the plantation has stayed within the ownership of the same family for more than 300 years, each generation has added its own personal touch to the gardens, expanding and adding to their variety. Today there are various varieties of flowers such as camellias, daffodils, azaleas and countless other species in bloom year-round, with the climax of incredible beauty building toward the spring bloom. For a list of what’s currently blooming, click here.
America’s oldest landscaped gardens are found at Middleton Place, an 18th-century rice plantation and National Historic Landmark, which also includes the Middleton Place House Museum and the Plantation Stable yards.
Middleton Place was established early in the life of the Carolina colony, and served as a base of operations for a great Lowcountry planter family. Begun in 1741 by Henry Middleton, president of the First Continental Congress, the landscaped garden was both an intellectual and emotional focus for successive generations of Middletons, including a signer of the Declaration of Independence; a South Carolina governor; and a U.S. minister to Russia.
But it’s the Gardens at Middleton Place, reflecting the elegant symmetry of 17th-century European design that truly captivate. The 65 acres of landscaped terraces, shadowy allées, ornamental ponds and garden rooms laid out with precise symmetry and balance, made Middleton Place the most unique and grand garden of its time. Click here to see what’s blooming now. Today, as they did then, the gardens represent the Lowcountry’s most spectacular expression of an 18th-century ideal—the triumphant marriage between man and nature.
Boone Hall is one of America’s oldest working plantations, growing and producing crops for more than 320 years. Once known for cotton and pecans, Boone Hall actively produces strawberries, tomatoes, pumpkins and many other fruits and vegetables.
History is also on the menu at Boone Hall, where visitors can experience what plantation life was like in the 1800s by learning about the day-to-day activities of those who lived there.
One of the most distinctive features of Boone Hall is its spectacular entrance. In 1743, the son of Major John Boone planted live oak trees, arranging them in two evenly spaced rows along the long road leading to the main house. This Avenue of Oaks created a spectacular approach to the home, which came to symbolize Southern heritage. Today, the moss-draped Avenue of Oaks is one of the many reasons why Boone Hall is known as America’s most photographed plantation.
Charleston Tea Plantation, the only tea farm in America, offers visitors a look into the daily operations of a working, living plantation. Located on Wadmalaw Island just outside Charleston, the history here focuses on the Camellia sinensis, or tea plants.
In the 1700s, tea plants arrived in the Colonies from China. Over the next 150 years, a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to propagate and produce tea for consumption. Finally in 1888, Dr. Charles Shepard founded the Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville, SC and American-grown tea became a reality. Tea plants grew wild at Pinehurst, where Shepard worked to develop award-winning teas until his death in 1915.
Today the Charleston Tea Plantation presents a learning experience unlike any other in the country. There, visitors can learn about the history of tea, the plantation site, and the actual harvesting and production process that takes place on-site at the Charleston Tea Plantation.
Experience the grandeur of Charleston’s plantations in bloom this spring. Book your room at The Governor’s House Inn today and begin your walk through history when you walk through our front door!