The Camellia Man

Meet the Charleston horticulturist responsible for 27,000 of the South's most "idiot-proof" plants.

Steve Bender
Tom Johnson
Peter Frank Edwards

"A camellia is a man's plant," states Tom Johnson. "That is because it's pretty much idiot-proof, and men don't really like to be challenged." Though said tongue in cheek, it partly explains how he finds himself today overseeing the country's largest camellia collection at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina.

Established on the bank of the Ashley River by Thomas Drayton in 1676, Magnolia is still held by the original family. For many years, it thrived as a lucrative rice plantation, but in 1838 its ownership passed to Thomas' great-great-great-grandson, the Rev. John Grimké Drayton, who set out to create a series of romantic gardens to help his new Philadelphia bride feel at home in the Lowcountry.

At Drayton's hand was the perfect plant to do this—the common camellia (Camellia japonica). Native to China and Japan, it had been introduced to America through the port of Charleston by famed French botanist André Michaux years earlier. Ideally suited to the Lowcountry climate, camellias began flourishing in small gardens as well as on large estates.

Johnson grew up in Perry, Georgia, near the American Camellia Society's 9-acre Massee Lane Gardens, and often visited there with his father. Though he was impressed with the magnificent plants, the camellia bug didn't bite immediately—Johnson wanted to be a farmer. "But in the seventies, all the farmers were going broke," he recalls. "At the same time, the field of horticulture was opening up with new jobs, so I decided to be a horticulturist."

His timing was impeccable. Gov. Jimmy Carter had just added vocational study to the Governor's Honors Program, a summer program for gifted high school juniors and seniors. "I was the first vocational student nominated," Johnson says proudly. "I showed up with the top 200 students in the state. This boy behind me looked at me and said, "This program is going downhill fast. They're letting in farm boys now."

Johnson, however, excelled. He then led a group that won a national award from the Future Farmers of America for landscaping Perry's downtown area. "I flew to Kansas City, Kansas, to receive our award," he recalls. "They sat me at a table that had more silverware around a single plate than Mama had in her whole drawer back at home."

After he attended Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia, Johnson interviewed with Alfred Simpson, owner of a large Atlanta landscaping firm. Simpson asked if he had any problem with working downtown. "I said, "No, sir, I ain't never been downtown, so I'm sure it'll be okay." Mr. Simpson leaned back, grinned, and said, "Boy, we're gonna put you in charge of the whole damn downtown." I was 24 years old with a Gold MasterCard and $1 million worth of accounts."

One account proved especially fruitful. "My second year there, I got put in charge of landscaping President Carter's Presidential Library," he recalls. "I would be out there clearing kudzu, and the President would visit with me." Before long, Johnson became the library's chief horticulturist. "But after 15 years there, everything was done and my work was finished," he says. He knew it was time to move on.

The camellias he'd admired in his childhood called to him. He returned to his hometown of Perry to become the horticulturist for the American Camellia Society. When asked what drew him to camellias, he mentions that they're hard to kill. "If you planted a camellia, a rose, and an azalea in your yard and then moved away for years, when you came back, the only thing left living would be that camellia." Camellias also bring historical gravitas to a garden. "I can walk out and look at a camellia's name, go to the International Camellia Register, and trace the lineage of that plant all the way back to when it was found in China. You can't do that with other plants," he notes. The third factor is their inspiring bloom. "Camellias do what they're not supposed to," he says. "They bloom in the dead of winter when there is nothing else to enjoy."

While he was managing the American Camellia Society's Massee Lane Gardens, Johnson became an advocate for what he calls romantic garden design. "A formal garden controls nature," he explains, "but a romantic garden cooperates with nature. It is an extravagant liar. It "lies" you into forgetting about your life outside the garden." Instead of having balance, symmetry, clipped hedges, and paved walks, there are paths that ramble and edges that are blurred, and the plants grow as they like.

Johnson lectured frequently on this topic, and Drayton Hastie, Jr., who is on the board of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, was listening. Hastie saw Johnson as the perfect person to restore the romantic look Magnolia once had and recruited him unsuccessfully for three years. "But the last time, he was smart enough to give up on me and go to work on my wife, Mary Ann," Johnson recalls. "He put us up in a bed-and-breakfast down on the Battery for $300 a night. Something like that is so wasted on a man! Then he bought me a bourbon and stuck me on the other end of the table. "The cabin we have for you at Magnolia is 10 feet from the Ashley River—you can sit in the hot tub," he said to Mary Ann. Then he asked about our son, Logan, adding, "How would he like the job of training the miniature ponies?" On our way home, Mary Ann looked at me and said, "Let me make this perfectly clear: We're going to Charleston.""

That was in 2007. Hastie wanted to assemble the largest collection of ancient (existing prior to 1900) and historic (originating from 1900 to 1960) camellias in North America on Magnolia's 500 acres. Even with camellias in place since 1840, Johnson knew this would be no small task. "When you're in your fifties, you realize there's more behind you than ahead of you," he observes. "I knew that signing on to the restoration of the gardens here would consume the rest of my life."

His decision proved the right one. The number of visitors to Magnolia has quadrupled in the last five years. Travel + Leisure named it one of the 15 most beautiful gardens in America in 2014. The International Camellia Society recognizes Magnolia as being one of only seven Gardens of Excellence in the U.S. And Magnolia's camellia collection of 27,000 plants represents 1,200 different selections.

Forgoing farming opened doors Johnson never could have expected. And he revels in his good fortune. "I get to take America's oldest public garden into the future," he says. "Magnolia is a lady, and my job is to shine her shoes and dress her in robes for the thousands of suitors who come courting."