The beauty of the gardens at Middleton Place is widely known as a year-round phenomenon of blooms. The winter though, holds a special place in the hearts of admirers, because of the vast expanse of camellias that are found scattered across all sixty-five acres of formal garden rooms. At every turn and in every vista, the winter’s rose – camellia japonica or camellia sasanqua – crowns viewpoints from November through March. While much commotion is made about the 18thcentury planting of the Reine des Fleursby André Michaux, the gardens at Middleton Place saw the largest influx of camellia importation during the early 19thcentury, under the direction of Governor Henry Middleton. What is less well-known about the camellias of Middleton Place, is how they came to endure centuries of change on this landscape.
From the earliest construction of the gardens – the moving of the earth to create the iconic terraced bluff, the engineering of pathways (and making the bricks that line them), to the plantings and design that only architects and horticulturalists could accomplish – the work of enslaved hands is not only evident, but is prevalent. The skill required to manifest a designer’s vision would have come with significant education and experience, not to mention a proficiency in horticulture that was required to maintain a landscape designed to reflect through foliage the lifestyles of the wealthiest people in the colonies. The enslaved men who were responsible for maintaining that high expectation in the 18thcentury include Emmanuel, his son Bob, and Winter – all gardeners whose names and occupations were found in Middleton family records.
In the 19thcentury, with changes to both taste and fashion in outdoor living, the responsibilities of skilled enslaved gardeners would have expanded, and the knowledge base required to care for imported exotic cultivars like the vast array of camellias on exhibit would have necessarily been a highly valued commodity. The enslaved gardeners under the 19thcentury Middletons’ subjugation were likely highly educated – and female. Along with Anthony, we know of four women – Willoughby, Louisa, Andrewina, and Priscilla (read more about Priscilla here) who would have learned from and carried on the knowledge of the premiere horticulturalists of their day. Governor Henry and his son Williams clearly invested as much in the care and upkeep of their ornamental surroundings as they invested in the family business of rice production.
Building on the legacies of earlier generations, the 19thcentury patriarchs of Middleton Place also took great pride in the social status associated with their Versailles-like landscape. They continued to diversify the exotic cultivars found in the gardens, bringing in not just camellias but also azaleas, tea olives, and crepe myrtles. The increasing complexity of the foliage meant that not only were enslaved gardeners responsible for keeping the gardens planted, blooming, beautiful, and interesting all year-round, it also meant that they became tour guides to visitors, should those visitors happen to arrive when the family owner was not in residence. The implications of a direct interaction with a visiting plantation owner and enslaver were weighty. Suddenly, the enslaved person encountering the visitor needed to be able to command a space while still showing deference, to demonstrate knowledge without assuming superiority, and to possess the flexibility to navigate a social situation in which most enslaved people never found themselves.
Especially during the cold winter, the pleaching – the selective trimming of camellia trees to create a canopied tunnel down which a visitor can peer – seems to extend clear back into the past. The juxtaposition between the natural beauty of camellias, and the past brutality that ensured their survival becomes stark. The stories of both endure, but the beauty – and those responsible for it – prevail.