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A merry meander through Southern gardens

One of the loveliest walks at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is the path between towering azaleas in this romantic garden.
One of the loveliest walks at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is the path between towering azaleas in this romantic garden. Courtesy of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Turtles are like taco chips for alligators — crunch — so how can they snuggle together in the sunshine at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens near Charleston, S.C.? Because alligators feed primarily at night, and the smart turtles paddle away long before evening.

Visiting the Audubon Swamp Garden wasn’t high on our to-do list because swamps tend to have tiny things that bite and leave you itching at night. However, when we took the nature train to see some of Magnolia Garden’s 500 acres of nature sanctuary we saw at least 12 great egrets with their distinctive yellow bills and black legs on the edge of the Swamp Garden and had to have a closer longer look. It was the absolute best part of the visit.

Bird lovers flock to the area and so do nature photographers. Much of the trail is elevated wooden walkway a foot or so above water that has a velvet green carpet of Lemna minor (duckweed) keeping it clean. Tupelo water trees with their swollen bases stretch so high that viewing is good in most directions. And such viewing. Even the clever green heron found the swamp garden a good place to visit. Blue-winged teals cruised through the swamp like they owned the place, dabbling as they went. There was one hoppy surprise, a swamp bunny. Perhaps we were just lucky, but neither of us had a single bite following our swamp walk.

The historic gardens are popular for several reasons. First, azaleas, often called “royalty of the garden” stretch above 8 feet in height because of both their age and their love of southern acidic soil. One wide path planted with azaleas in shades of pink and lavender made a flowering curve over our heads. Branches filled with blossoms were the width of a church aisle and length of a football field. We held hands, swinging them with delight as we walked.

Second, the gardens feature more than 2,500 Camellia varieties, enough to keep enthusiasts busy for a long time. Camellia sasanqua varieties bloom from November to December and japonicas originating from Japan bloom January through March.

The owner of Magnolia Plantation, the Rev. John G. Drayton, wanted to keep his Philadelphia-born bride happy, so he brought English informality to the garden and planted azaleas, blue wisteria and camellias to please her. He built a school and was educating the children of slaves, which was against state law, before the Emancipation Proclamation. Although their home was burned by Gen. Sherman’s Union troops at the end of the Civil War, and the family was reduced to poverty, many of the freed slaves helped restore the gardens. They were able to become paid workers because selling some of the land to phosphate mining interests, and opening Magnolia Plantation Gardens to the public, helped restore jobs to both black and white families.

Owning the garden hasn’t been a walk in the park for descendants of Julia Drayton Hastie, the Draytons’ daughter. The 1929 stock market crash impacted one generation and the 1976 oil embargo and Hurricane Hugo in ’89 could easily have blown away the garden’s future for the next generation. Extraordinary effort by the late J. Drayton Hastie Sr. brought the garden back from disaster.

The Biblical Garden features a large Star of David with plants named in the Old Testament, and a large cross with plants named in the New Testament. The area was planned as an educational effort so visitors can see and touch some of the plants written about in the Bible. This garden suggests the quince as the possible fruit Eve offered Adam in the Garden of Eden. It also memorializes the last three garden superintendents.

Many gardens offer playgrounds, petting zoos and nature centers for young visitors because they recognize that is where their future lies, but this one also has a shrubby green maze ideal for teens tired of travel and youngsters who need a run. It is similar to the holly maze at Hampton Court Palace in England, except it is clipped shorter and the green is punctuated by colorful camellias in winter. An elevated platform lets viewers watch the youngsters explore and take wrong turns, giving welcome respite to parents. One surprise: dogs on leashes are welcome throughout the garden.

Cool seasons are good travel time in the South. The garden’s abundant azaleas take your breath away from mid-March to late summer. Azaleas and camellias separate roadways and brighten gardens throughout the region, following the example of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.

Magnolia trees begin blooming and perfuming the Southern air in 80-degree temperatures mid-April. There is color each season, but expect temperatures above 100 degrees and humidity at 100 percent some days in summer. Plants love it; people wilt.

Dusk. Time for birds to roost. We wondered who was the boss bird — the heron nesting at the top of the tree or the one at the bottom of the tiered group? Same with the egrets, now finished with dancing or searching for that perfect straw for their nest. The wiley turtles slipped into the water, with the alligators following them. Time for us to slip away, too.

“Want a chip?” my husband asked, holding out the bag.

“Thanks — crunch.” I replied.