I recently visited Middleton Place, a Plantation along the Ashley River, in Charleston, South Carolina. While I explored the oldest landscaped gardens in America, I found myself both in awe of the beauty of what once was and the natural vegetation that is now.
The story of the Middleton’s Place begins before the Civil War in the early 18th Century. It was in 1741 that Henry Middleton began to envision and create his grand, European gardens featuring vistas and focal points, designed with geometry, balance and symmetry. This classical style of the formal garden reflects the principals established by Andre Le Norte, the Landscape Architect of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles.
Extended vistas in the Carolina Low Country were usually flat, but the house site at Middleton Place was an exception. It stood on a bluff 40 feet above the Ashley River which forms a wide canal directly in line with the house. Henry Middleton’s eye appreciated the expansive view of the river, and its alignment with the center hall of the house. This main axis was to become one side of the perfect right triangle that inspired the original garden design. More recently, the expansive front yard is where scenes from both movies The Patriot and Glory where filmed.
The Middleton’s original gardens contain allées, which were planted with trees and shrubs, to create green walls that partitioned off small galleries, green arbors and bowling greens. Sculptures were placed at the end of long vistas and ornamental canals designed with precision. The “Wood Nymph” is carved entirely out of marble dates back to 1810 and is a survivor among many family statues that were destroyed during the Civil War. In 1786, the French Botanist Andre Michaux gave the Middletons the first four Camellia japonicas to be planted in an American garden. One still blooms throughout winter and in affectionately known as the “Queen of Flowers”.
The Role of Water
The role of water was not only important as ornamental lakes, but also vital for the economic life of the plantation. The Middleton’s cultivated rice and to this day, there is still a demonstration Rice Field. Rice was the Low Country’s most important cash crop in the 18th and 19thcenturies. Fun fact: today several small alligators call these ornamental lakes home.
Several notable prized plant specimens: China and Tea Roses first propagated in the 18th and 19th centuries, camellia, a yellowwood tree, native azaleas and varieties of magnolias and the bicentennial oak tree. Union Troops burned the home in 1755 and the Great Earthquake of 1886 left parts of the house in ruins. The grounds endured 60 years of neglect after the Civil War; in 1925 J. J. Pringle Smith, a direct Middleton descendant, moved to Middleton Place. He and his wife Heningham immediately began a 15-year restoration project for which, in 1941, they were presented the Garden Club of America’s highest award. The Garden Club of America recognized Middleton Place not only as America’s Oldest Landscaped Gardens, but also as the “Most interesting and important garden in America.” I hope you enjoyed this journey back in time. It is amazing to see history told through the brick and mortar structures of the South, but also in the form of plants, trees and shrubs that made the journey on the Ashley River and grow at Middleton Place.