A different legacy of the Drayton family is Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (3550 Ashley Rd., 843/571-1266, www.magnoliaplantation.com , Mar.–Oct. daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m., call for winter hours, $15 adults, $10 children, under 6 free). It claims not only the first garden in the United States, dating back to the 1680s, but also the first public gardens, dating to 1872.
However, Magnolia’s history spans back two full centuries before that, when Thomas Drayton Jr.—scion of Norman aristocracy, son of a wealthy Barbadian planter—came from the Caribbean to build his own fortune.
He immediately married the daughter of Stephen Fox, who began this plantation in 1676. Throughout wars, fevers, depressions, earthquakes, and hurricanes, Magnolia has stayed in the possession of an unbroken line of Drayton descendants to this very day.
As a privately run attraction, Magnolia has little of the academic veneer of other plantation sites in the area, most of which have long passed out of private hands. There’s a slightly kitschy feel here, the opposite of the quiet dignity of Drayton Hall . And unlike Middleton Place  a few miles down the road, the gardens here are anything but manicured, with a wild, almost playful feel.
That said, Magnolia can claim fame to being one of the earliest bona fide tourist attractions in the United States and the beginning of Charleston ’s now-booming tourist industry.
It happened after the Civil War, when John Grimke Drayton, reduced to near-poverty, sold off most of his property, including the original Magnolia Plantation, just to stay afloat. (In a common practice at the time, as a condition of inheriting the plantation, Mr. Grimke, who married into the family, was required to legally change his name to Drayton.)
The original plantation home was burned during the war—either by Union troops or freed slaves—so Drayton barged a colonial-era summer house in Summerville, South Carolina, down the Ashley River to this site, and built the modern Magnolia Plantation around it specifically as an attraction.
Before long, tourists regularly came here by crowded boat from Charleston  (a wreck of one such ferry is still on-site). Magnolia’s reputation became so exalted that at one point Baedecker’s listed it as one of the three main attractions in America, alongside the Grand Canyon  and Niagara Falls .
The family took things to the next level in the 1970s, when John Drayton Hastie bought out his brother and set about marketing Magnolia Plantation and Gardens as a modern tourist destination, adding more varieties of flowers so that something would always be blooming nearly year-round. While spring remains the best—and also the most crowded—time to some, a huge variety of camellias blooms in early winter, a time marked by a yearly Winter Camellia Festival.
Today Magnolia is a place to bring the whole family, picnic under the massive old live oaks, and wander the lush, almost overgrown grounds. Children will enjoy finding their way through “The Maze” of manicured camellia and holly bushes, complete with a viewing stand to look within the giant puzzle.
Plant lovers will enjoy the themed gardens such as the “Biblical Garden,” the “Barbados Tropical Garden,” and the “Audubon Swamp Garden,” complete with alligators and named after John James Audubon, who visited here in 1851. Hundreds of varieties of camellias, clearly labeled, line the narrow walkways. House tours, the 45-minute Nature Train tour, the 45-minute Nature Boat tour, and a visit to the Audubon Swamp Garden run about $7 extra per person for each offering.
Of particular interest is the poignant old Drayton Tomb, along the Ashley River, which housed many members of the family until being heavily damaged in the 1886 earthquake. Look closely at the nose of one of the cherubs on the tomb; it was shot off by a vengeful Union soldier. Nearby you’ll find a nice walking and biking trail along the Ashley among the old rice paddies.