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By Maria Lenhart, special to The Christian Science MonitorMagnolia Plantation is open daily, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., all year long. It is located on Route 61, 10 miles north of Charleston toward Summerville, just off I-26, Summerville exit. Admission charge is $4 adults, $3 teen-agers, $2 children, free for children under 4, and special rates for groups. For further information, call (803) 571-1266. / October 6, 1981

Charleston, S. C.

In the late 1600s Thomas Drayton established his home in the "low country" near Charleston, S. C., a primeval wilderness area of black swamps, marshland, alligators, towering cypress and live oaks, and blue herons. True to his aristocratic English origins, he turned a portion of his untrammeled surroundings into a proper flower garden.

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Much to the delight of thousands of visitors to the Magnolia Plantation each year, drayton descendants are still meticulously caring for their floral legacy. Ever since the years following the Civil War when the Rev. John Grimke Drayton enlarged the gardens and opened them to public view, Magnolia, like the ageless, never-fading Southern belle she is, has been beguiling travelers with her considerable charm.

Located off Route 61 about 10 miles to the northwest of Charleston, Magnolia is one of the immense plantation sites that lay along the Ashley River before the Civil War. Sherman's troops burned the main house, as they did on nearly all the other plantations, but left the gardens alone.

As Route 61 nears Magnolia, it gradually leaves 20th-century gas stations and fast-food chains behind to become a cathedral-likeavenue of black cypress and live oak draped with wispy strands of mos. A right turn onto the plantation drive reveals more of the same, eventually giving way to broad green pasture on one side and a 2,000-foot camellia bush maze modeled after the one designed for Henry VIII at Hampton Court on the other.

At the end of the drive is a small pre-Revolutionary War house with Victorian additions that John Grimke Drayton had moved to the site shortly after the plantation house was burned. Bordered all around by a wide, inviting porch, it is a museum of family memorabilia and life during the reconstruction era.

What often steals visitors' attention from the house, however, is the front yard pasture of mini-horses, a special breed in which the tallest stallion is no more than 34 inches high. The tiny brown and cream-colored horses are allowed to roam out of their field and can be seen throughout the grounds. Often accompanying them is a special "friend," a miniature cow no larger than they.

Animals and birds are an integral part of the scense, from the peacocks fond of nesting in the 18th-century herb garden to the great wild egrets and herons flying from tree to tree along the marshland. Recently the current owner, Drayton Hastie, added a Petting Zoo in which children may feed and get acquainted with Swiss Alpine goats, English deer, Canada geese, turkeys, and other friendly residents.

But the star attraction of Magnolia is not fauna but flora, acres and acres of brilliant azaleas, camellias, roses, hibiscus, lilies and more. The ever-changing array of color is linked by centuries-old brick-lined paths and mysterious black lakes that once were the plantation's rice fields. The lakes, which get their black water from the ancient, thickrooted cypress that shade them, can be crossed by means of charming Victorian foot-bridges.