Magnolias: Ancient Beauties Bridging Time and Seasons

One of the joys of late winter through much of spring and into early summer is the dramatic performance art that is the unfurling of magnificent Magnolia blooms throughout the urban areas of the North State. In home gardens and city parks, the show seems almost choreographed – timed to begin at the tail end of winter with pale gray branches of the deciduous magnolia species one day opening into pink and white and cream colored light – it lifts one’s winter spirits and turns one’s head daily as you see another tree and another tree open – elegantly bridging the journey from winter to spring.

Proceeding theatrically from these precocious blooms, different Magnolia species and varieties take turns in the spotlight all the way into early summer when the star of the final act is the epic blooming of North American native Magnolia grandiflora. Regal and fragrant white blooms spanning sometimes a foot across, open around early May, on equally regal tree forms – their clear cream saucer shapes lighting up surrounding dark glossy green foliage.

As a child growing up at 8,000 feet in Colorado, there were few magnolias. But my grandfather in the humid Southeast had a sandy-soiled formal garden encircling his grand pink (yes, pink) house. The front porches (upper and lower) were festooned with wisteria, and massive old magnolias stood guard front and back. As girls we would scramble up these trees, get stung by indignant bees and collect the pre-historic looking seed heads, liking best the ones jeweled with the bright red fleshy seeds. When we were older, our step-grandmother would walk us in the garden and point with her cane to the blossoms she hoped we could reach to cut for the dining room table. The pure white blooms with their almost-asian-architecture central pistil would be floated singly in a glass or silver bowl. The petals velvety and fragrant by candlelight.

It wasn’t until I was older and visiting my grandparents in the Northeast one Easter that I saw the luminous event of a deciduous so-called “tulip” magnolia (M. x soulangeana) in full pale-pink bloom on bare branches of late winter. It took me time to grasp that it was also a magnolia, and I remember arguing with another girl about its identity. But a magnolia it was, and I have come to mark different seasons with each different form of these wonderful trees.

<em>Magnolia</em> \'Silver Chalice\'

Magnolia 'Silver Chalice'

Not only are magnolias bridges from one season to the next, they are also bridges between vastly different time periods on our planet.

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.

Petal drop on a surrounding woodland floor is quite lovely - on a driveway or sidewalk it\'s a bit messy. Site your trees thoughtfully.

Petal drop on a surrounding woodland floor is quite lovely - on a driveway or sidewalk it's a bit messy. Site your trees thoughtfully.

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.

M. \'Butterflies\' close-up.

M. 'Butterflies' close-up.

For more information on magnolia history and cultivation, try the Magnolia Society website:
http://www.magnoliasociety.org

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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.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and 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 morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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3 Responses

  1. Avatar `AJacoby says:

    So, is Tulip Tree just another name for the first magnolia you show in the first picture above, or was I told the wrong name entirely and the Tulip Tree is something completely different?

    • Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

      There are at least two trees which I have heard referred to as Tulip Tree – thus the confusion that sometimes results from common names. This magnolia, which sometimes people clarify by calling it Tulip Magnolia. The other tree is a magnolia relative, the Liriodendron tuliperfera, of the magnolia family. Hope that helps! 🙂