Magnolia Plantation is one of South Carolina’s premier attractions. Located on the Ashley River near Charleston, it bills itself as America’s last large-scale Romantic-style garden.
It fits the definition. It is a garden where form, balance and symmetry are thrown to the wind, where views are calculated to appeal to emotion rather than reason and where paths wander around dark reflecting waters that hide the realities underneath.
As its name and location suggest, Magnolia Plantation is a deeply southern garden. At this time of year it is bursting with camellias and azaleas; magnolia trees are in bloom and live oaks are dripping with Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).
One small section of the garden dates back to the late 1600s but most of the garden was developed in the early to mid-19th century, in the years before the American Civil War. The war wrecked havoc on the garden, the plantation and the family in whose hands it still belongs, so in the 1870s the family opened the garden to the public as a money-making venture. While the gardens have evolved since their antebellum days, the layout — and more significantly their overall character — remains much as it has always been.
Is it the unchanging nature of the garden that explains why some people love it and others find it a disappointment?
I’ve visited Magnolia Plantation three times, twice this year and once last year. This doesn’t make me an expert — I’m sure many who live in the area visit the garden annually — but it does allow me to evaluate my own response. When I visited the garden for the first time, I expected to dislike it. I thought I’d see a garden as pretty as any that graced the cover of a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, a garden with charm and no substance. Instead, to my surprise, I liked it.
So returning this year, I expected to like it even more. But a second visit showed me nothing more than the superficial charm I saw a year ago. Less entranced by its romantic veneer, I noticed the garden’s flaws: the weeds and piles of brush waiting to be picked up, the statuary needing to be cleaned and straightened, the triteness of the annuals planted in unimaginative ways.
Don’t get me wrong. The spring flowers are lovely. Who can resist the close-up charm of a speckled azalea blossom …
or the silkiness of a pollen-dusted camellia …
or the two-toned magic of a magnolia opening in the warmth of the sun?
The camellias were particularly photogenic when I was there, whether they were pink…
or scarlet …
or fire-engine red.
And there’s no question. This garden is photogenic. Bridges reflected in dark water reinforce the promise of romance, whether the bridge is white…
Tree trunks reflected in the water create dramatic shapes and shadows …
and wandering paths reveal unexpected spots of colour.
And yet something is missing. Pretty blossoms are well and good — and I enjoy them as much as the next person — but I want something more, and Magnolia Plantation doesn’t deliver.
If it were only a pretty-picture garden, charmingly banal and sentimental. I could accept it for what it is. But underlying the sentimentality and superficial sweetness is an undercurrent of darkness.
The statuary that appears throughout the garden illustrates the point. As intended, it catches the eye and heightens the sense of romance that awaits at every turn. Hidden in the undergrowth or viewed through peepholes created in dense shrubs, it suggests a connection to the past, to other times and other places.
The connection it implies is to the glories of the classical world. Cupids, urns, Venus atop her scallop shell — all allude to a Golden Age, to better times when man was pure.
I think that is the problem. Magnolia Plantation alludes to the mythology of the Olde South. It presents a garden frozen in time, and that time wasn’t all sweetness and light.
Adding to that are my reservations about any garden that is treated as a museum. A static garden is the very opposite of what a living, breathing garden is and must be.
A visit to Magnolia Plantation is a pleasant tourist experience but a garden that is praised as one that “seems never really to change” isn’t a garden that rewards multiple visits.