Named in 1748 for French Botanist Pierre Magnol, the Magnolia family (Magnoliaceae) is considered to be one of the oldest of the flowering plant families and currently consists of more than 240 species, with over 1000 cultivars. Fossils evidence of magnolias indicate they were growing close to 100 million years ago – concurrent with dinosaurs.While you will see bees and other pollinators collecting pollen in magnolia blooms, the flowers evolved before bees and are adapted to pollination by beetles, which accounts for their very fleshy petals and calyces, built to endure damage sustained by biting beetles. According to the San Francisco Botanical Garden, whose collection of magnolias is significant and in bloom now, magnolias are survivors of several ice ages, and thrived in the protected mountains of southern China, the southern United States, southern Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. The arboretum on the campus of California State University, Chico has a proud collection of magnolias including specimens dating back to General Bidwell. I had the fun recently of walking around this collection of beauties with Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences and Field Director of the Chico State Arboretum, Wes Dempsey. The stars of Chico collection, he points out, include the small tree Magnolia denudata – one of the most loved of all magnolias. Called the “Yulan” or “Jade Lily” by the Chinese, the exquisite lily shape of the blossoms with their often pure white petals, has the longest known history of cultivation going back to the Tang Dynasty – 618 AD. Its beauty was celebrated in ancient Chinese art and it is a symbol of purity, Dempsey told me. Magnolia denudata was the first Asian magnolia from the East introduced to the western world when it was brought to England in 1780, and it is one of the parents of many cultivars, including the popular M. x soulangeana hybrids. Another star of the Chico State Arboretum is the historic Southern Magnolia, a soaring 60 foot iconic version of which shades the front porch of the Bidwell Mansion. According to Wes Dempsey, General Bidwell planted the seed of this tree before the mansion was even built with the hopes that the tree would in time come to provide welcome shade. Through out the North State, you will see many varieties of magnolia used as good landscape trees in home and urban settings. They are well-adapted trees for garden spaces large and small and offer plenty of reward from spring bloom to summer shade and some fall color and winter structure. They don’t mind our searing heat and more importantly can take some summer water (by which I am indicating they do not mind being planted in or near a lawn). Spring, when young specimens are forming leaf buds, is said to the best time to plant magnolia and while they will adapt to most soils, they do not love overly limey conditions and do well in a good loam. Once established, magnolia are fine without much supplemental irrigation at all and are pleasingly resistant to oak root fungus. A few caveats on placement of magnolias in the garden: they are generally shallow rooted, Wes Dempsey points out, and so the larger specimens, such as M. grandiflora are better sited away from sidewalks or driveways which their roots can eventually lift. Also, the spring-blooming deciduous varieties can be magnificent in their floriferous abandon, but when a windy, wet spring storm comes through and all those fleshy petals fall they can be a bit messy. I was reminded of this the other morning as I sat a traffic light in town and watched a man with his large outdoor green waste bin raking the heavy fallen petals of his magnolia off of his front lawn. I had three thoughts: 1. He looked so lovely raking the the colorful harvest; 2. I wished I had my camera; 3. He must be glad his car/his bike/another favorite garden specimen was not under the petal drop. On Friday March 29th Wes Dempsey along with two colleagues will be leading a tour of the trees of the CSU, Chico Arboretum in celebration of the University’s 125 anniversary. The tour will meet in front of Bidwell Mansion at 10 am and is free. Further information about the tours can be obtained from the Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park at 895-6144 or from the University at 898-6222. Leaders of the tours will include Durbin Sayers, Manager of Grounds; Emeritus Professor of Biology, Wes Dempsey; and Gerry Ingco, retired USFS and CA Parks ranger. For more information on magnolia history and cultivation, try the Magnolia Society website:
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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.