We are in the heart of the antebellum Confederacy’s low country this week. Eleven of us from Washington, Oregon and California started our UW Botanic Garden journey of southern gardens in Savannah, Georgia guided by Susan Epstein of Charleston, South Carolina. We are focusing on gardens, but the south’s charged past is all around us.
James Oglethorpe, an English humanitarian, landed on the bluff of Savannah in 1733 with a vision of “agrarian equality” without enslavement in the new colony. However, his utopian belief was short lived and by 1751 slavery was legal in Georgia.
The founders laid out Savannah on a twenty-four-square park-like grid. During the early years, residents used the squares for markets, meeting space, and roaming cows. However, today the squares are garden treasures. The city has planted Chionanthus virginicus (now in bloom) and pink and white azaleas. Each square is graced with the low country’s giant and magnificent live oak trees draped with Spanish moss.
Outside of Savannah, we visited the historic plantation known as Wormsloe founded by Noble Jones, one of Georgia’s original colonists in 1736. Wormsloe’s mile and half allée is lined with 400 live oak trees, planted by Wymberley Jones De Renne in 1891. The owner gave us a private tour of Wormsloe’s house, garden and free-standing stone library filled with Confederate documents and publications related to Wormsloe’s environmental conservation efforts with the University of Georgia. The white dogwoods were in full bloom in the understory of the live oaks.
We traveled on to Beaufort, South Carolina to visit private gardens and the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church. This is the church where Harriet Tubman is believed to have given a speech on the night of June 2, 1863 after she led the Combahee River Raid with Union soldiers to free more than 750 enslaved men, women and children.
We drove over the Harriet Tubman Bridge on the Combahee River and discussed the complex history of African Americans, many of whom became estranged from the land because of their past as forced labor on plantations. We arrived at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens where we met our guide Herb Frazier, a retired newspaper reporter and staff member. Herb, an African American, told us stories rich with images of the past and present as we walked through the gardens of bald cypress, magnolias, camellias and azaleas.
Time was getting tight and our southern dinner of fried chicken and shrimp & grits was approaching, but it was not time to leave just yet. We found out that Herb was a co-author of a recently published book on the mass shooting and white supremacist hate crime at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal in June 2015. We all sat on the front porch of Magnolia Plantation’s home in green wicker chairs mesmerized as Herb told us about his childhood in Charleston and his connections to the AME Church. We walked away slowly, grateful for the time we spent with Herb.
In downtown Charleston the next day, we meandered through several charming private gardens and walked on the promenade of the Battery and seawall. We looked out to see Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor where the first shots were fired at the start of the Civil War; on the land side we viewed the grand and well-preserved early nineteenth century homes facing the Atlantic. Lavender wisteria is starting to bloom in Charleston gardens and jasmine’s sweet scent is wafting from window boxes along Tradd Street.
Today we visited Middleton Place known for its handsomely landscaped grounds, historic camellias and fields of rice. We reflected on our week of southern garden beauty and on the souls, enslaved and free, of those who built and cultivated nature in the low country.