Magnolias were named for Pierre Magnol, a director of the French Botanic Gardens, during the eighteenth century.
The American magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora or Bull Bay magnolia is native to the balmy Southern states and the Gulf of Mexico. It is an evergreen, and flowers in early summer. It produces creamy white blooms which can measure more than 25cm in diameter. They have a fresh, citrus fragrance.
When I was a child, a recording of ‘The White Magnolia Tree’ was played regularly over the radio. Years later I could only remember fragments:
Every year it will bloom anew,
And the white magnolia grew and grew.
There was also a line about a child dying, which led me to associate the Magnolia with great beauty tinged with sadness.
On a visit to the Deep South of the United States several years ago, this impression was reinforced. In Vicksburg, Mississippi I spent some time touring the beautifully maintained Military Park, where the trenches and forts of the civil war are still in evidence. The cost of this war in human lives was very high. Thousands of Union soldiers lie in the town’s military cemetery, which is shaded by giant, evergreen Magnolias. The beauty and fragrance of the flowers adds to the poignancy of this special place, as does the cemetery’s setting on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River.
Sadder still is the knowledge that southern Confederate soldiers who died at Vicksburg are buried nearby, but in a mass grave. As is often the case in a civil war, many were closely related to those who served in the opposing, Union army. Until relatively recent times, the glossy leaves of the Bull Bay magnolia were used in this part of the world to form funeral wreathes.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896 -1953), author of the Pulitzer prize winning novel ‘The Yearling‘ who lived in Central Florida in the 1940’s, complained of magnolia leaf thieves, who stripped the trees around her orange grove at Cross Creek, just as the buds were forming.
Miss Rawlings loved the magnolias, taking comfort from their beauty during times of great hardship. She often gathered their blooms for the house, and explained the care necessary to prevent bruising of the leaves :
The blooms, for all their size and thickness, are as delicate as orchids in that they reject the touch of human hands. They must be cut or broken carefully and placed in a jar of water without brushing the edges…..
I love to pick the flowers when they are just opening. One morning I was watching as one suddenly burst into full bloom.
There is certainly nothing funereal about the magnolia’s perfume. It has a joyously fresh fragrance, spiced with the tang of citrus. Several fine examples of Bull Bay magnolias can be found in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. Whilst they do not do as well in the cooler climate of the Blue Mountains, it is there they can be found in what is perhaps their loveliest setting.
The words of The White Magnolia Tree were written by Helen Deutsch. In the original recording they were brought to life by the rich voice of actress Helen Hayes. In the concluding lines, the speaker gives thanks for a full life, then adds one more thing to a list of blessings:
‘Thanks because I still can see
The bloom on the white magnolia tree.’
It is likely that the poem actually refers to a deciduous species of magnolia, which Australian gardeners will be very familiar with. Magnolia heptapeta or Yulan, is a native of the colder regions of China. The white, pink flushed flowers decorate the tree’s bare branches during winter and early spring.
Magnolia x soulangeana is a cross between the Yulan and a later flowering, rose-purple blooming species called Magnolia quinquepeta. The resulting hybrids produce flowers ranging from pink- blushed white, through to vivid purple. There are some beautiful old specimens of these trees in Sydney, particularly in the gardens of Federation era homes.
One of the most fragrant of the soulangeana’s is San Jose. It has masses of rosy purple flowers which are snow white inside.
Not all of the deciduous magnolias have distinctive, cup shaped blooms. The perfumed, flamingo pink flowers of Magnolia Leonard Messel consist of a series of long, narrow petals which are very decorative.
The aptly named M. Stellata or Star magnolia is similar. To see it by moonlight when it is in full bloom is like coming upon an earthbound, white star-burst. M. Stellata grows to a maximum of about three metres and thus makes a lovely focal point for a small garden or courtyard.
King parrot feeding on star magnolia blooms,
A FEW TIPS ON MAGNOLIA CARE FROM AN ENTHUSIASTIC AMATEUR
Deciduous magnolias require little pruning; their gnarled spurs adding to their beauty. However, do not hesitate to cut sprays for the house. The upturned bells or stars on bare, silver grey branches make magnificent floral displays, particularly in decorative Chinese vases. Hammer the stems to make the flowers last longer.
Magnolias require a light, acid soil. Peat moss and compost will help improve a sandy position and rotted leaf mould can be dug in to condition heavier soils.
The evergreen magnolias are very hardy. They do well in most soil types, and have a wide climate range. There are magnificent specimens in sub-tropical Sydney as well as where I live, in the cool Blue Mountains.
An interesting relative of the magnolia is another Asiatic native, the Michelia, especially Michelia figo, more commonly known as the port wine magnolia. It’s relatively insignificant, wine coloured flowers appear amid dense foliage in late spring. Some people insist that the strong fragrance is reminiscent of port wine. Others (including me) say it more closely resembles ‘juicy fruit’ chewing gum!
Of all the magnolias, the giant, Bull Bay blooms are my favourite. An elderly gardener once assured me that most flowers were created by angels, but those of Magnolia grandiflora were individually crafted by God.
Update – April 19 2018. We have had an unusually warm autumn where I live in New South Wales. Yesterday I visited a beautiful garden called Windyridge in Mount Wilson. Just look at this magnificent bud on a magnolia.
And here is an example of the red fruit, something I have never seen before.
My associate Editor Des has insisted I include a photo of his attempt at Garden Art. He calls this piece Mr Magnolia Man. The budding artist….ho ho.
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