Charleston’s 5 Iconic Plants
Many of our best-loved plants first entered the South through Charleston. Here’s the fascinating story of how they got to the region's garden gateway and then to your backyard.
Native to Japan, the Indica azelea got its name because at the time it was discovered, Asia was known as the East Indies. By 1845, the largest and oldest collection of the evergreen shrub was flourishing at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens up the Ashley River from Charleston. Thirteen generations later, Taylor Drayton Nelson, pictured, works to identify many of the heirloom azaleas and camellias planted at his family’s gardens before they are lost.
André Michaux, plant explorer and botanist to King Louis XVI of France, first presented the voluptuous blossoms of the camellia to friend and Charleston neighbor Henry Middleton in 1786. Today, you can find an original double red camellia called ‘Reine des Fleurs’ (“Queen of Flowers”), pictured, as well as hundreds of different camellia specimen at Middleton’s plantation, Middleton Place. Flowering in winter and spring, when many other favorites are still sleeping, camellias offer ruffled blossoms in glorious shades of pink, white, red, and even multiple colors.
One of the most intoxicating fragrances in the world comes from the waxy gardenia blossom. The double white flower was first planted in the New World in the garden of its namesake, Dr. Alexander Garden, a Scottish physicist and naturalist who moved to Charleston in 1752. The flower was first discovered by a friend of a friend, Carolus Linnaues, the Swedish botanist that had developed the genus-and-species system for scientifically naming and classifying plants.
After refusing to bloom in frigid England, Chinese native crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) showed its true colors when André Michaux introduced the tree into Charleston around 1786. Today, crepe myrtles flourish just about anywhere in the South. Audacious spikes of pink, purple, white, and red flowers crown its sculptural branches in the summer and turn to brilliant red and orange in the fall.
These roses were named for Philippe Noisette, a French nurseryman in Charleston in the early 1800s. The blooms resulted from crosses made by Charleston landowner John Champneys between ‘Old Blush’ China rose (Rosa chinensis) and musk rose (R. moschata). Unlike many old European roses that bloom only in spring, these fragrant shrubs and arching climbers bloom repeatedly from spring through fall. Today, you’ll find the South’s own class of rose blooming around Charleston at places such as Boone Hall and Hampton Park.