Take a tour of America’s oldest public garden, the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, and discover its key ideas

First created in the 17th century, the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is still bursting with inspiration for plant lovers

peacock in the grounds of the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
(Image credit: Richard Ellis/Alamy Stock Photo)

Did you know that historic city of Charleston, South Carolina is home to the magnificent Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, believed to be America’s oldest public garden? 

Dating back to 1676, when Thomas Drayton and his wife, Ann, moved from Barbados to the Deep South to start a rice plantation, it’s still in the same family ownership, 15 generations later. 

'Although it first welcomed guests in 1870, two decades after the US Botanic Garden debuted [in Washington D.C], Magnolia Plantation and Gardens asserts that it is the country's oldest public garden,' says a spokesperson. 'Additionally, it is said to have the oldest Indica Azalea collection in the nation.'

And, these 464 acres, created in the Romantic style with sweeping bridges, drifts of naturalised daffodils and bursts of vivid color, also offer some amazingly inspirational ideas to take away if you’re thinking of planning some new garden design ideas for your own backyard scheme. 

Exterior of the main house at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

(Image credit: Philip Scalia/Alamy Stock Photo)

Be inspired by the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Each generation of the family has added to the overall style of the gardens over the years. Here are some of our favorite things to look out for and how you can adapt them to your own backyard ideas

1. Reflective glory

bridge over a lake at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina

The iconic white bridge at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

(Image credit: H. Mark Weidman Photography/Alamy Stock Photo)

Built on a peninsula bordered by the Ashley and Cooper rivers, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens has always made creative use of abundant water. 

A key theme of the space is reflection, which you can easily recreate at home by edging a small wildlife pond with grasses, sculptural perennials such as tall lilies and, if you have space, elegant trees.

2. Wildflower borders

wildflower border alongside a pathway at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Pathways are lined with mixes of wildflowers

(Image credit: Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 16+/Alamy Stock Photo)

There’s been plenty of time over the centuries for wildflowers such as cone-flowers and daisies to establish themselves in the informal borders of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, self-seeding to create a glorious display in the summer months. 

If you want to create a border that looks more like a wildflower meadow than a formal display, simply scatter a wildflower seed mix in freshly raked soil, cover lightly, and water gently. Or collect your own seeds from your favorite roadside plants.

3. Statement plants

azaleas under oak trees at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Azaleas are a key attraction at the gardens

(Image credit: Phyllis Peterson/Alamy Stock Photo)

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is renowned for its outstanding collection of Indica Azaleas – and has acres of space to display them. But even if your backyard is super-bijou, you can specialize in one particular kind of plant. 

Pelargoniums or hydrangeas are good choices. Easy to grow and maintain, a massed collection will bring a sense of purpose and coherence to even small backyards.

4. Take to the trees

hanging basket suspended from trees branches at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Hanging baskets suspended from the trees add further interest

(Image credit: Danita Delimont/Alamy Stock Photo)

Statuesque oak and cypress trees characterise the historic landscape of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, but if you have only a small tree in your backyard, why not incorporate some flower-filled hanging basket ideas into your space and try suspending your creation from its branches? It looks really natural, can be adjusted to suit the season and makes a lovely surprise for your own garden visitors. 

Can you visit the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens?

Located in Charleston, South Carolina, The Magnolia Plantation and Gardens are open to visitors every day from 9am-5pm (except for Christmas Eve, 9am-3pm, and closed on Christmas Day). 

A general admission ticket will give you access to the historic gardens, zoo and nature center, the Tropical Conservatory and the horticultural maze. It also includes the guided 'From Slavery to Freedom' tour. 

All tickets must be purchased on site on arrival. 

Jayne Dowle
Freelance writer

Jayne Dowle is an award-winning gardening, homes and property writer who writes for publications including Sunday Times Home, Times Bricks & Mortar, Grand Designs, House Beautiful and The Spectator. She was awarded the Garden Journalist of the Year accolade at the Property Press Awards in 2021.