One visit to this Charleston landmark will send you back in time.

Steve Bender

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is known for its epic displays of azaleas. Thousands of tourists make special trips to see them bloom in April. Many of these plants are historic varieties that date back more than a century. So what does Magnolia do when a freakishly warm winter causes them (and historic camellias too) to bloom so early that tourists miss them?

One thing is fall back on the incredible natural beauty of the garden itself, such as that of the cypress pond shown above. Another is developing later blooming azalea hybrids that maintain the look of the old types, add new colors, and extend the color season by blooming later in spring.

You might think this hybridization process would take a long time to produce anything. You'd be wrong. Tom Johnson, Magnolia's Executive Director, has greenhouses of new azalea seedlings that bloom a mere two years after they germinate.

These seedlings start out tiny. A bean seedling would seem tree-size in comparison. That's because azalea seeds are much smaller than grains of ground black pepper. If you put a thousand in the palm of your hand and suddenly sneezed, Tom would probably faint.

Steve Bender

Thousands of newly germinated azalea seedlings in Magnolia's greenhouse await Tom's approval for planting. He's looking for beautiful colors and later blooming.

Most of Magnolia's older azalea fall into two classes that first arrived in Charleston from their native lands in Asia around 1800 – Kurume hybrids (compact, very early blooming) and Southern Indica hybrids (the somewhat later blooming giants we associate with plantations and grand old homes of the Southeast). To get azaleas that bloom weeks later in spring, Tom crossed these with the later-blooming Satsuki and Robin Hill azaleas.

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Having spent a good time talking to Tom over the years, it is my estimation that he loves his wife, Mary Ann, azaleas, and good beer in that order (although 2 and 3 may be reversed, depending upon the occasion). So while a normal person might find the selecting, naming, and planting of thousands of new azaleas a daunting task, Tom looks forward to it with gusto. Here are four new beauties to drool over in the years ahead. None are named yet.

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson

Designed in an informal, romantic style intended to immerse visitors in the wonders of nature and let them escape everyday worries, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens boasts beautiful things to see every month of the year, not just April. It was founded by the Drayton family in 1676 (descendants are still there) and opened its gardens to the public in 1870 – making them the oldest public gardens in America. If you're visiting Charleston and don't visit Magnolia (and also Middleton Place just a few minutes away down the same road), either you will kick yourself or I will do it for you. For more info about Magnolia, go to magnoliaplantation.com.

Steve Bender

Viewed from a gazebo, azaleas and Spanish moss define this romantic, antebellum garden.

In the meantime, Tom, I'm still waiting for that new azalea you promised to name after me. My guess is you're still looking for a brown and green one. Have another beer and look harder.

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