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  • Dana Tutela

Iconic Plants for a Traditional Southern Garden

Updated: 5 days ago

Create a nostalgic southern garden that's good for your soul by adding these iconic classic plants to your landscaping.

southern garden with azaleas
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A traditional southern garden evokes images of a slower time when neighbors stopped by unannounced and enjoyed a glass of lemonade on the front porch. Barefoot children chased fireflies through the evening grass and climbed magnolia trees. Can you smell the hint of jasmine in the air? Then let's get started and make your garden a classic southern oasis.

Every house we've owned in South Carolina has some roots put in the ground by this ginger. (Okay, so does the one rental house-I couldn't stop myself!) After more than two decades of homeownership in the South, I consistently include the following traditional southern plants in our landscaping.

white magnolia blossom

Southern Magnolia (magnolia grandiflora)

This is first on my list because the Southern Magnolia exemplifies the South not only in its appearance, but its attributes. Have you ever watched the movie Steel Magnolias? The metaphor of strength and resilience coupled with delicate beauty and grace captures the essence of the South and her communities.

The Southern Magnolia stands tall at a whopping 60-80 feet and features fragrant white blooms the size of dinner plates. The glossy evergreen leaves are stunning year round, and the cones from the spent blooms add texture and interest to this magnificent tree.

The best part about a mature magnolia tree? The branches. Kids love to climb these smooth evenly spaced sturdy branches. No need for screen time when you have a small grove of magnolia trees in your yard!

*Zones 7-9

*Height 60-80 feet

*Full Sun


*Ginger Tip: If space is limited, try a Little Gem Magnolia which is approximately a third of the size.

hydrangea blossoms


There are several different varieties of hydrangeas including big-leaf, oakleaf, smooth, and panicle. My iconic southern hydrangea choice is the big-leaf, or macrophylla. This species develops the classic mop-head blooms in blue, pink or white. The color changes depending upon the pH of the soil: pink in neutral soil and blue in acidic soil. I absolutely love the romantic appearance of hydrangeas! Unfortunately, so do the deer. Be prepared with fencing or deer repellent sprays if these hungry animals are nearby.

Here in blazing hot South Carolina, hydrangeas prefer morning sun and afternoon shade and evenly moist soil.

*Zones 6-8

*Height 3-6 feet

*Part Shade-Full Sun

*Not Deer Resistant

*Ginger Tip: add aluminum sulfate to soil for bluer blooms and garden lime for pinker ones!

camelia blossoms


Winter takes its toll on me every year with her cold grey dreary days. I miss my garden and sunny flowers. It doesn't last long, though, because Mother Nature sends me a gift to tide me over until springtime with camellias. Their evergreen leaves and rose shaped blossoms pop out mid to late winter and add a festive color to the garden when most plants are quietly sleeping. Colors range from red to pink to ivory with a variety of petal counts. Camellias are a must-have in my southern garden!

*Zones 7-9

*Height 3-8 feet (I have some even taller!)

*Full Sun to Partial Shade

*Deer Resistant

crape myrtle natchez

Crape Myrtle

Another traditional plant for the South is the crape myrtle. Its graceful branches and abundant blossoms are the heralds of summertime. Colors include shades of pink, red, purple and white. Crape myrtles look lovely standing tall at entryways, lining driveways and sidewalks, and anywhere you need a flowering specimen tree. They make me think of the Fourth of July when they're readily blooming and resemble a fireworks display. Ahhhh summer!

My personal favorite is Natchez, a white variety that grows tall and fast. It fills a blank space quickly and majestically.

*Zones 7-10

*Height 20-30 feet

*Full Sun

*Drought Resistant

*Ginger Tip: Crape myrtles come in a wide range of sizes if you're short on space.

gardenia blossoms


One of my three favorite scented plants is the gardenia. I will get to the other ones next! Gardenias capture the essence of the South with their glossy evergreen leaves and heavenly scented white blossoms that bloom throughout the summer. Whenever I am buying room fragrance sprays or candles, I reach for the one that has a gardenia scent because I know it will be divine!

Plant them near patios or entryways so you can appreciate their scent often. We had several growing outside our breakfast room window at our last house, and they were unbelievable. Give them full sun for maximum blooms and growth.

*Zones 8-11

*Height 4-6 feet

*Full Sun

*Deer Resistant

fragrant tea olive bloom

Fragrant Tea Olive Tree (Osmanthus fragrans)

If you like gardenias, you will love fragrant tea olive trees. I remember the first time I smelled these evergreen beauties in Charleston, South Carolina. My neighbor had planted them around her wrap-around front porch. Every time I walked up her front steps, I would look around trying to figure out the origin of this incredible scent wafting through the air. They looked like regular old bushes to me! She pointed them out and said in her perfectly southern voice, "They're tea olives, darlin!"

I was hooked. The scent of fragrant tea olive trees is intoxicating, romantic, subtle and unassuming. I was ecstatic when we purchased our home in the Upstate and found the previous owners had planted them along the driveway and across the back fence line! Sitting on the screen porch while the breeze carries their scent is pure heaven.

Of course I have planted them here at our new house and can't wait for them to grow!

*Zones 8-10

*Grows to 10 feet tall

*Full to Part Sun

*Deer Resistant

confederate jasmine climbing arbor

Confederate Jasmine

Confederate jasmine, or star jasmine, is my third favorite scented plant that is always in my southern garden. Unlike my other choices, this one is an evergreen vine that grows 15-20 feet tall with clusters of tiny white flowers in springtime. Confederate jasmine is a capable and robust vine that can easily cover an arbor or pergola. I love growing confederate jasmine in my moon garden to show off her delicate white blossoms and heavy fragrance.

*Ginger Tip: The name refers to an asian confederacy where it originated, not the South's.

*Zones 8-11

*Grows 15-20 feet tall

*Full-Part Sun

*Attracts pollinators

hot pink azaleas


I realize azalea bushes are not limited to the South, but they are indispensable in my traditional southern garden plant list. They are a welcome sight for sore eyes after the bleakness of winter. Their colorful and prolific blossoms declare the arrival of spring and provide an exquisite backdrop to the partly shady areas of the garden.

If you are ever planning a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, try to time it in early April and visit the Flowertown Festival in Summerville. This YMCA fundraiser draws thousands of visitors and for good reason! It's one of the largest arts and crafts festivals in the Southeast and takes place in Azalea Park.

*Zones 6-9

*Height 2-3 feet

*Partial Sun to Partial Shade

*Deer Resistant

Can you picture your traditional southern garden yet? I'm grabbing my gardening gloves and going to add some more of these iconic plants to mine!

For more southern gardening inspiration, read my post 8 Essential Features of a Charleston Garden.

Charleston garden pin

So many of these fragrant flowering plants feature white blossoms and would be perfect for a moon garden. Read more in How to Create an Enchanting Moon Garden.

moon garden pin

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7 days ago

I just planted star jasmine along my fence. Thanks for the recommendation!



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