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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 New World.

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 complex.

Anne K. Moore

''called on M. Place; took cuttings of the...camellia''
Charles Drayton's diary, 1814

By Tracey Todd
Vice President, Museums
Photos by Anne Moore

For 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 collecting rights. 

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 other means. 

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 Andr� 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. 

Among 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 copy.'' 

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. 

Later 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.'' 

Just 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 ecstasy.'' 

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

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