‘Want to come to Mulberry Plantation?” I asked my 15-year-old daughter. She gave me a look that suggested she’d rather pick slugs off budding hostas.
“You’ll miss seeing one of the most prestigious privately owned plantations in South Carolina.”
Her expression intensified, as if to say she’d pick those slugs off with her bare fingers. So I went alone to meet Angela Livingston, the horticulture manager of Mulberry Plantation, at the front gates.
Livingston, a former Trident Technical College horticulture student, has managed 55 acres for the past nine years, along with six full-time employees and one part-time.
Mulberry Plantation has a rich place in the Southern history books. To preserve its storied history, it was purchased in 1987 by the Historic Charleston Foundation to keep it from commercial development.
It was later purchased by a private party and, to this day, Mulberry Plantation consists of 1,704 privately owned acres. At least 300 acres of the property were once rice fields.
Live oaks greet me along the entry lane, their heavy branches arching over the road. Great care has been taken to preserve these Southern treasures, including lightning protection.
Livingston says her management style has changed over the years. She used to proactively control every pest she saw, but now she’s more likely to let insects feed if they aren’t a threat.
In fact, she says, it’s thrilling to watch nature. She once cheered when a dragonfly snatched a blackfly from mid-air. Her kids thought she was nuts. However, this management style fits wonderfully with the natural beauty of Mulberry Plantation.
Our first stop is the main house, of which much has been written. Built on a hill, the main house is one of the oldest brick manors in South Carolina. Livingston shows me the pockmarks where musket balls from previous wars had struck and, in some cases, are still imbedded. The front lawn consists of 5 acres of turf framed by Spanish moss-laden live oaks.
The kitchen garden is north of the main house and confined within fig-covered brick walls and a cast-iron gate. The formal design consists of mostly herbs and a few citrus plants that are ornamentally appealing as well as used for cooking.
Livingston’s staff starts most plants by seed. At the time of my visit, the seasonal garden is filled with thyme, parsley and basil, but that is subject to change.
The east side of the house overlooks flooded rice fields, the primary crop on the plantation until the early 1900s, and beyond that, the Cooper River. Residents and guests can sit in the parterre garden, designed by Loutrel Briggs in 1930, beneath the shade of sagging live oaks and enjoy a truly Southern view.
Livingston takes me through various gardens where magnolias, oaks and cedars are prolific. What’s truly exceptional is the experience of outdoor rooms, where each part of the expansive garden is screened with hedges to allow me to “discover” the landscape as we walked.
We approach the guest house but not before encountering the reflection pool. The elongated rectangular water feature was designed by Sheila Wertimer and contains black-dyed water, the still surface holding the reflection of a leaning live oak. The tranquility of this space is enhanced by the cool shade and trickling fountain.
“This is my favorite space,” Livingston says. And I agree with her.
The guest house is covered with fig vine that is meticulously trimmed around the windows and doors. “The fig vine,” Livingston says, “is one of the most intensive areas on the plantation to manage.”
However, the textural effect is visually pleasing.
They cut back the fig on the two-story guest house three times a year.
They can reduce the maintenance to twice a year if they use a plant growth regulator, but the effect it had on nearby plants wasn’t worth it. Asiatic jasmine is the only thing that competes with fig maintenance.
The crew wears snake boots when cutting it back since copperheads lurk in the thick groundcover. A raised mower had once been used but too much collateral damage to the irrigation system took them back to weed eaters and snake boots.
We circle around the guest house to the front lawn.
From this vantage point, the view back to the main house is quite stately. Beyond the front lawn is a field of broom grass enclosed by a Colonial-style split-rail fence. The broom grass and fence lend an old-world feeling to the setting. I can see the corn fields in the distance.
Livingston says that dove and quail hunting is quite popular with the owners and that they’d planted a field of sunflowers along with 5 acres of corn to provide food and habitat for fowl.
“The sunflowers are a spectacular sight, the way the flowers follow the sun,” she says.
Nature seems balanced on the plantation. It’s obvious that the undisturbed habitat and available food source makes it a perfect respite for rabbits, deer, turkeys, ducks, raccoons and fox squirrels
Occasionally, something will kill a chicken or they’ll have to remove a large alligator, but for the most part, nature takes care of itself.
We take a ride to the south house, built in 1835, where guests often stay. The shade garden at the south house rivals the reflection pond in its tranquility, alive with diverse plantings of farfugium, fatsia and hosta.
Next to it is the glass house that serves as the greenhouse for tropical and houseplants. It was designed by Glenn Keyes and, as Livingston says, needs to be seen at night when it’s lit up. It’s spectacular.
We drive to the south end of the plantation that, for the most part, is left completely undisturbed.
Livingston points out countless live oaks that define the Southern landscape, many of which look at least 500 years old.
Some of the live oaks growing near the main house are protected with lightning rods that divert a potentially lethal strike outside the tree and into the ground.
“However, they can’t all be protected by lightning,” she says, showing me the escalating decay of one tree struck years ago.
They were treating it to prevent insect damage until nature saw an opportunity and a bee hive established in the hollow of the trunk. That was three years ago. The bees are still there and the tree is still alive.
The two-hour tour goes too quickly. On our way, we stop to let a turtle cross the road. I want to tell Livingston not to pinch herself, she’s living the horticulturist’s dream. But then I wouldn’t need to tell her that. She already knows.
Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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