In this visitor's article, Tracy Todd,
Vice-president of Museums at Middleton Place Plantation, talks about the
history of this remarkable place. Through
oral and written history, learn not only how the camellias that bloom in the
winter came to be planted there but how they are most likely the earliest known
plantings of Camellia japonica in the
Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark, is
located on Ashley River Road (Highway 61), just 14 miles northwest of
Charleston, South Carolina. The
Middleton Place Foundation now owns and operates this 65-acre formal garden
Anne K. Moore
CELEBRATING THE CAMELLIAS OF MIDDLETON PLACE
''called on M. Place; took cuttings of the...camellia''
Charles Drayton's diary, 1814
By Tracey Todd
Vice President, Museums
Photos by Anne Moore
generations, Middleton family oral tradition has held that in 1786 the famed
French botanist Andre' Michaux brought four camellia plants to Middleton Place. Michaux was commissioned by King Louis
XVI to find useful trees and flora to enrich his home country of France. He was known to present exotic plants
to land owners and other dignitaries in order to gain favor and obtain
According to the oral tradition, the original
camellias presented by Michaux were planted at each corner of the Main
Parterre. Camellias would have
been among the most treasured specimens for an 18th -century American
garden, so these were appropriately placed at opposing ends of two green walks,
close to the house where they and other rare plants could be under the watchful
eye of both the owner and his enslaved gardeners.
Could this interesting and often repeated oral
history be true? Oral history,
oftentimes dismissed by historians, in recent years has gained increasing
credibility. Sometimes oral
histories, which lack a substantial backing on paper, can be proven through
The descendants of Sallie Hemings have always
maintained through oral tradition that their ancestry can be traced to Thomas
Jefferson, and recent DNA science seems to have proved that the Hemings’ oral
history is indeed true.
Other times, oral histories can be proven by careful
analysis of related material and other possible scenarios, eventually
constructing a credible case bringing together the known evidence that supports
or refutes the oral tradition.
This essay sets forth the documentation known so far regarding the early
history of camellias at Middleton Place.
Because oral histories become embellished as they
are retold through many generations, the earlier the stories are recorded on
paper the better. An early written
source that Michaux gave camellias to the Middletons is found in Mary Catherine
Rion’s 1860 Ladies Southern Florist
(revised 2nd Edition).
According to Rion, camellias were “traditionally
introduced into South Carolina as early as 1786, by André Michaux, when he
visited Middleton Place, near Charleston.” This is important because it demonstrates that the Michaux
oral tradition existed during the lifetime of Williams Middleton, a son of
Governor Henry Middleton.
Obviously, Williams was only one generation
removed from his father and other family members who would have had first-hand
knowledge of Michaux, and he may have told Rion the story himself. Even if he did not, we are still very
fortunate to have the Michaux camellia tradition written down so early with no
chance for embellishment by succeeding generations.
The camellia was named in honor of George Joseph
Kamel or Camellus (1661-1706), a Moravian Jesuit missionary who described the
flora of the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
Camellias were introduced into England in 1739,
but without adequate knowledge of their proper care, the first plants soon
died. According to garden
historian James Cothran, it is believed by some scholars that camellias were
introduced into this country by John Stevens of Hoboken, New Jersey in 1797,
but Middleton family tradition disputes that attribution by placing camellias
in Charleston a decade earlier.
Documentary evidence also calls into question the
Stevens attribution because the existence of camellias had been recorded in the
English gardens of the British West Indies at least ten years earlier. In his 1793 The History of the British Colonies in the West Indies, Bryan
Edwards listed A catalogue of exotic plants, in the garden of Hinton East,
Esquire [on]the Island of
Jamaica, at the time of his decease.
the many rare and exotic plants in East's garden at the time of his death in
1787 was Camellia japonica, or Japan
rose. From this evidence, it seems
clear that camellias had crossed the Atlantic by the 1780s, if not earlier, and
given 18 th -century trade patterns between Charleston and the Caribbean
Islands (Edwards' list shows that plants of Carolina origin were in Jamaica by
the 1770s), camellias may have been introduced into South Carolina from several
sources in the 18 th - century.
Two very interesting clues that could help
establish when camellias were first planted at Middleton Place exist within the
Foundation's archives. The first
is a plant and seed list thought to be an order placed by Governor Henry
Middleton around the year 1800.
The four-page document lists 320 individual plants
and seeds including Camellia japonica,
for a total price of 24 pounds sterling, 11 shillings. While it is certain that Henry did have
a keen interest in botany, particularly after his return from Europe in 1799,
the best evidence for dating the document may be the watermark on the paper on
which the list is written.
This watermark, known as a post-horn design, was
used on paper manufactured both prior to and after the Revolutionary War. Experts in the field have advised the
Foundation's research staff that the paper could have been made between the
1760s and 1790s but by the early1800s, it was not likely still in use. Further study may reveal more
information about this early plant and seed list, but for now, it simply
remains an intriguing part of an unsolved puzzle.
Another clue connecting Middleton Place with Andre
Michaux and camellias is a very fragile book on display in the House
Museum. Published in 1788, Thomas
Walter's Flora Caroliniana focused on
native plant species of the region — valuable information for an explorer
such as Michaux. The book is
signed by Governor Henry Middleton with a note, also in his handwriting,
stating, ''N.B. This was Michaux's
Henry Middleton made several notations in both
pencil and ink throughout the book and meticulously indexed the hundreds of
plant names on the final few blank pages.
By itself, the book's importance may seem small because Henry could have
acquired it from a number of different sources. But together with other clues such as the plant and seed
list and the existence of the oral tradition, Henry's book with its notation
that it belonged to Michaux adds another layer of credibility to the story.
The earliest conclusive evidence discovered to
date of camellias at Middleton Place is in the diaries of Charles Drayton. He was the second-generation owner of
Drayton Hall as well as the uncle of Henry Middleton, who inherited Middleton
Place after the untimely death of his father in 1787.
The Charles Drayton diaries (1784-1820) offer a
fascinating glimpse into late 18 th and early 19 th century life in the Low
Country and particularly along the Ashley River. Among his many friends and acquaintances mentioned in the
diaries, Drayton seemed to have a strong friendship with Andre' Michaux.
The two men became virtual neighbors when Michaux
established his Botanic Garden near the present-day Charleston Airport across
the river from Drayton Hall and adjoining a tract of land owned by
Drayton. From the Drayton diaries,
we know Michaux made several trips to the Ashley River plantations including a three-day
''quest for plants'' in 1794.
Drayton records on November 10, ''Mr. Michaux the
French Botanist came'' and the following day, ''He [Michaux] went in quest of
some plants — leaving his sick horse.'' Finally, on November 12, 1794 Michaux writes, ''Mr. Michaux
returned to his garden — his horse died...At night he sent back my horse
& 9 Genea [sic] of rare plants & shrubs.'' We can surmise from this documentary evidence that Andre'
Michaux visited Middleton Place along with other Ashley River plantations on
this three-day mini-quest as well as on other occasions.
Michaux left Charleston in 1796 but his legacy
remained. Charles Drayton continued
to visit Michaux's botanic garden even in later years after it was abandoned
and overgrown, but his interest in exotic plants never subsided. On June 24, 1814, Drayton recorded that
he ''called on M. [Middleton] Place; took cuttings of the Olea fragans — camellia — Hydrangen Carolinensis. Double flowering myrtle; Erica or Mediterranean heath.''
Almost three years later in 1817 he again wrote,
''Brought from M. Place a plant of camellia and Olea fragans...''
Obviously, if he took cuttings in 1814 there must have been camellias
growing at Middleton Place large enough that the cuttings could be removed
without endangering the parent plant or plants themselves.
references to camellias from the 1830s and 1840s abound, and include detailed
descriptions. On December 25, 1838
Eliza Middleton, daughter of Governor Middleton, wrote, ''Papa called me to the
terrace to admire the Camellias which I found in great beauty both the white
and variegated'' One year later,
in December 1839, her mother wrote upon arriving at Middleton Place for
Christmas, ''I found everything here looking...dreary at this season [because] a
hard frost had blighted the red and white camellias which...were in full bloom
only days earlier.''
a few short months later in March 1840, Richard Yeadon, an editor of The Charleston Courier, visited
Middleton Place and wrote a wonderfully detailed description of the gardens and
house. In describing the exotic
plants Yeadon recorded, ''We remarked three varieties of the Camellia Japonica, growing luxuriously
and in wasteful bloom in the open air — one of them (a red) being a tree
of about 15 feet in height, and of no inconsiderable circumference.''
Seventeen years later Yeadon would visit Middleton
Place and once again publish his observations in The Charleston Courier.
In April, 1857, he wrote, ''The Japonicas, in the garden, both single and
double, are the finest, I believe, in the world; the former growing into large
trees in the open air, the latter, in the early winter, presenting a spectacle
of floral beauty and glory, which once, in my presence, actually put that
eminent farmer and florist, the late John Michel, Esq., in a condition of
The camellia trees described by Yeadon in 1840 and
again in 1857 must have been decades old to have reached such an impressive
height and trunk size. Any of them
could have been one of the original Michaux camellias.
While the puzzle is not completely solved and
further study is still needed to prove the Middleton family oral tradition, there
is convincing evidence that camellias have been a part of Middleton Place since
the early 19 th century, if not earlier.
The Foundation is fortunate to have these early references to camellias
in the family papers and other primary sources such as the Drayton diaries and
Richard Yeadon's newspaper stories.
Thanks to Yeadon's observations, we know that by
the time others such as John Grimke' Drayton, who is promoted as being among the
first to grow camellias outdoors, were planting their first camellia, a fifteen-foot
camellia ''tree'' with ''no inconsiderable circumference'' already existed in the
gardens at Middleton Place.
Growing camellias outdoors in Charleston was by no means an experiment
by the time Grimke' Drayton planted his garden in the late 1840s.
Today, perched high above the Butterfly Lakes on
the northeast corner of the parterre, one of the original camellias has
outlasted all the others and it remains a living reminder of the Michaux
tradition. While the ''Reine des Fleurs,'' as it's called,
continues to be the queen of the gardens, literally thousands (actually counted
by Sidney Frazier, VP Horticulture) of old camellias shape the architecture of
the allees, paths and secret gardens.
Still many more important varieties from the heyday
of camellia propagation in the 1940s enhance the Middleton Place
collection. Delicate red, white,
pink and variegated blooms delight and amaze thousands of garden visitors each
year, and the annual performance continues to put them, as it did John Michel
in 1857, into ''a condition of ecstasy.''
Middleton Place is open daily at 9:00 a.m.
Contact information: (843) 556-6020 (800) 782-3608