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Show #35/1309

INTRODUCTION TO MAGNOLIA PLANTATION

Anne K. Moore, February 13, 2009
Photos by Anne K Moore
Show #35/1309

Magnolia Plantation near Charleston S.C. dates from 1676.  The romantic style garden on its grounds was installed in the 1830’s.  Paths meander through mature camellias and azaleas, which help make up the backbone of this garden. 

Taylor Drayton Nelson is the eleventh generation of Draytons to live at and look after the property.  He took over from his grandfather in 2002.  He feels, “The garden is unique, with the setting underneath the Spanish moss of the Live Oaks and the reflective blackwater lakes fringed by primeval cypresses and wildlife.”

Tom Johnson has been the Director of Gardens there since 2006.  He immediately set out to discover and preserve old camellias wherever he could find them.  He observes, “Just like the winding paths in a romantic garden that lead to hidden surprises, we stumbled onto a national crisis when we searched for the older varieties of azaleas and camellias to revive our gardens.”

He also determined that it would be folly to save all of these historical plants in just one garden.  A natural disaster, mainly hurricanes in this area, could wipe out all of the collected material.  In 2008, the Great Gardens of America Preservation Alliance was formed to distribute these heirloom plants to gardens all over the South.

Tom appeals to you to help preserve unique heirloom camellias and azaleas, for not only this American garden icon, but also for the preservation of the plants and unique DNA for future generations.

MAGNOLIA PLANTATION                                                                    by Tom Johnson

Photos by Anne K Moore

 Immediately after I joined Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in 2006 as the director of gardens I began a nationwide search for ancient azaleas and camellias to restore Magnolia’s historic romantic-style gardens.

My goal is to maintain the character of the gardens the Rev. John Grimke Drayton designed in the 1830s to soothe his homesick bride, Julie Ewing. The Rev. Drayton propagated azaleas and camellias from conservatories up north, transplanting them at Magnolia in a whimsical garden he patterned after the romantic gardens of Europe.

His mission was “to create an earthly paradise so his dear Julia would forevermore forget Philadelphia and her desire to return there.” Through his vision, Magnolia is now America’s last Romantic-style garden.

Just like the winding paths in a romantic garden that lead to hidden surprises, we stumbled onto a national crisis when we searched for the older varieties of azaleas and camellias to revive our gardens.

Miles Beach, director of Magnolia’s Camellia Collection, and I discovered that many varieties of the older azaleas and camellias have been lost, and most of the others are dwindling at an alarming rate. We could find only one nursery in the nation that specialized in ancient camellia varieties, and no nursery was growing ancient azalea types. We needed the older varieties because it would be out of character to plant a 1960 variety of azalea or camellia in a garden designed in the 1800s.

Beach and I began a massive effort to locate and take cuttings from every ancient variety we could find and bring them home to Charleston to propagate them. We believe that these rare varieties are a national treasure, and we wanted to secure them and their DNA for the future. At the end of the first season, Magnolia had in its greenhouses more than 200 varieties of camellias and azaleas not previously found in the gardens.

Then we realized that by collecting all of these plants in one location we were potentially setting ourselves up for a monumental problem. What if Charleston is hit by a major hurricane? We could lose the last copies of these plants, and they would be gone forever.

Drayton Hastie, one of Magnolia’s owners and a descendant of the Rev. Drayton, came up with the idea to form an alliance of public and private gardens that would plant ancient azalea and camellia cultivars. That idea grew into the Great Gardens of America Preservation Alliance. The alliance is now a collection of gardens, cities and individuals from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia who are dedicated to locating, identifying and defending these plants.

The group got its start in early 2008 at Magnolia. Since then the alliance has rescued more than 300 varieties of camellias from extinction and have leads to the location of hundreds of other endangered plants. Not all of them, however, have come from U.S. gardens. Florence Crowder, an amateur horticulturalist and antique storeowner in Denham Springs, La., traveled this summer to two gardens in France to collect scions of ancient camellias, 28 of them have never been seen in this country. Other trips are planned next year to Italy.

The alliance met in mid November at the Mobile Botanical Gardens. At that meeting, Magnolia distributed several hundred camellia plants to alliance members. We also gave Bayou Bend Collections and Museum of Fine Arts in Houston camellia varieties that were destroyed by a recent hurricane. Magnolia and the Burden Center, a horticultural research facility at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, will be the central points for the propagation of the camellias to save their DNA.

Now that we’ve established our program for collecting ancient camellias, we are now turning to azaleas. With the help of Martin van der Giessen, owner of Van der Giessen Nursery in Semmes, Ala., the American Azalea Society has formed a national committee to locate endangered azaleas.

The alliance has had other successes. Beach has developed a website where gardens can list varieties in their collections. Marcus Jones, woody plant curator of The Norfolk Botanical Garden, is creating a database of all registered ancient varieties on record. This information will be placed on the alliance’s website so the public can review it and post lost varieties discovered in their backyards.

Other gardens in the alliance are Bellingrath Garden and Home in Theodore, Ala.; Callaway Gardens at Pine Mountain, Ga.; Harry P. Lue Gardens in Orlando, Fla.; Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pa.; Natchez, Miss.; Edgefield, S.C.; and Macon, Ga.

In addition to Crowder and Van der Giessen, six other individuals are in the alliance. They are Atlanta architects Jim Cothran and Andrew Kohr, who specialize in the restoration of historic gardens; Robert Harden of Macon, Ga., who donated a camellia collection to the City of Macon; Ruth Coy, a member of the Natchez Garden Club; Clare Dodd, who owns a 20-acre camellia collection in Marshallville, Ga.; and John and Stephanie Grimm, who own Camellia Heaven in Bush, La.

At our recent meeting, the alliance elected officers. They are Beach, president; Bart Brechter, curator of gardens at the Bayou Bend, vice president; Crowder, secretary; and Grimm, treasurer.

We need your help. We are in a race against time to locate and save ancient azaleas and camellias from becoming lost due to natural disasters and urban sprawl. We are racing to save the biodiversity of our environment and preserve our horticultural heritage, an undertaking that is just as significant as saving the American bald eagle.

Tom Johnson

 

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