INTRODUCTION TO MAGNOLIA PLANTATION
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
mission was “to create an earthly paradise so his dear Julia would forevermore
and her desire to return there.” Through his vision, Magnolia is now America’s last
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.