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.

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.

The peak of the garden's beauty occurs in spring when 250 varieties of azaleas, some dating back more than 100 years, burst into a riot of color beneath the stately oak magnolia, and cypress trees. Spring in Charleston is a long one that stretches from February through May, beginning with the delicate blossoming of Magnolia's peach and crab apple trees and the blooming of the first jonquils, narcissus, and early azaleas. In March the flower beds are blanketed with daffodils, and by April the azales have reached their dazzling peak.

One pen only during the spring, Magnolia how now been planted with enough colorful variety to more than justify its year-round season.Summer, although not as colorful as spring, finds the garden decked with roses, hibiscus, hydrangeas, mimosa, lilies, and annuals. In fall comes a show nearly rivaling that of spring as the estate's hundreds of camellias, for which it has been famous since the 1940s, come into their own. The camellias continue in their full glory during the short winter into the middle of spring.

Although Magnolia isrenowned as a splendid example of an informal garden, it was originally patterned after the formal, stylized gardens of Georgian England. A charming remnant of that original late 17th-century garden still remains in a series of geometric brick-enclosed flower beds to the west of the house called Flowerdale. All of its plantings were brought over from Europe, as no self-respecting colonial aristocrats would have even considered planting native flowers in their gardens.

The principal part of the gardens stretch down from the back of the main house over to the grassy banks of the meandering Ashley River. To the west the river curves around Magnolia's 125-acre wildlife refuge, a marshland area thick with cattails, duckweed, and an almost limitless variety of birds.

A three-story observation tower at the edge of the marsh is a popular spot for bird-watchers, particularly just before sunset when thousands of wild ducks, egrets, herons, and geese come home to roost. Often visible as well are alligators making streamlined ripples across the water. For those who want to study the wildlife at closer range, nature trails wind around the marshland and canoes are available to explore the inlets.

A trip to Magnolia is greatly enhanced by learning something of the remarkable family that has so carefully tended it over the years. Taking one of the regularly scheduled tours of the main house reveals muh about the draytons, particularly the resourceful John Grimke Drayton who brought Magnolia out of the ashes of the Civil War to become both a popular tourist attraction and, thanks to a timely discovery of phosphate on the property, a profitable mining operation.

Among the collection of old photographs in the house are a few attributed to Mathew Brady of the palatial home that burned during the War. Other photographs show tourists in long skirts and straw hats disembarking from the paddle-wheel steamer that called in at magnolia from Charleston.

Among those early travelers was the English author and landscape painter John Galsworthy, who declared the gardens too beautiful to paint, calling them "a kind of paradise which has wandered down, a miraculously enchanted wilderness."

Decades later, it is still difficult not to agree.

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