One of my favourite moments in the year is when the Magnolias start to flower. Along with wisteria, Magnolias herald the new season of sunny warm days and having been modestly hidden in the garden for months, they suddenly show themselves everywhere with their amazing pinky white cup and star shaped blooms.
Magnolias are unimaginably old, going back 100 million years to the Tertiary Period to a time when the Arctic Circle had a European climate and Magnolias, Ginkgo and Liriodendron grew there. They are among the most primitive of flowering plants and fossils have been discovered in rocks from the Cretaceous period. Their simple shape with thick petals and stiff anthers together with their powerful scent are adapted to pollination by larger insects. However, once the dramatic climate change happened and the polar ice cap expanded these plants were of course destroyed, however, in China, eastern North America and Japan they survived.
Named after a French botanist and noted horticulturist, Pierre Magnol, who died in 1715, there was only actually one species of Magnolia in Britain at that time, the Magnolia viginiana, now not common in gardens.
Later during the late 18th Century Sir Joseph Banks introduced another species Magnolia denudata in 1780. A beautiful variety of Magnolia, it grows wild in China. The flowers grow on bare branches in early spring and have been the inspiration for many paintings. They were often planted in temple gardens and were seen by Buddhists as a symbol of purity. The flowers are considered a delicacy dipped in flour and fried. The only problem with this specimen is that the flowers are easily damaged by frost although the tree is resistant to cold.
It was not until the 20th Century that many of the magnolias we see today were introduced by two British men, Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson and George Forrest. They were sponsored plant collectors backed by wealthy horticulturalists.
Ernest Wilson also introduced a great many new species widely grown today, including Magnolia wilsonii, and Magnolia sinensis, sadly he died young but no other plant hunter ever introduced as many species as he did.
One of my favourites, a large specimen, which can be seen growing outside the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath, is Magnolia grandiflora. This wonderful plant comes from the river valleys of southeastern America and grows in warmer climes as a freestanding tree. During the summer months large creamy white flowers hide amongst the glossy evergreen bronze-backed leaves. Vita Sackville-West wrote that they reminded her of ‘great white pigeons settling among dark leaves’. The scent is quite lemony and strong and Native Americans believed that sleeping beneath one of these trees would overpower them! They grow well in large containers, and are good for giving all year round interest, they do need watering and feeding however as it’s easy to forget about them as they need little attention.
Another great favourite of mine is Magnolia soulangiana. Named after Chevalier Etienne Soulange-Bodin (died in 1946), he was the founding director of the Royal Institute of Horticulture near Paris. In a very early experiment Magnolia liliiflora was crossed with Magnolia denudata and the new hybrid was much praised and named Magnolia soulangiana. Over a hundred distinct cultivars have been created since. Most recognisable being those with flowers stained pinkish-purple on the outside and white on the inside but there are also very dark pink varieties as well as pure white. This Magnolia is really quite hardy and can cope with temperatures down to -20F; it flowers in early spring and covers an otherwise naked tree with lots of flowers.
A popular smaller tree, which I think works well in front gardens is the Magnolia stellata, it grows to around two metres in height with a slightly larger spread and is hardy, needing neutral or acid soil and is very early flowering, which is a bonus. The buds are flushed pink and it flowers well. If they get frosted whilst in bud or flowering it will simply grow a new crop to replace the old.
A good place to see a wide range of Magnolias is the Botanical Gardens at Victoria Park. There are some breathtaking trees of every size and variety and generally the cherry blossom is out at the same time, making for a wonderful spring visit with plenty of opportunities to get the camera out! Otherwise a walk around Bath will reveal that there are so many amazing trees in the city, normally un-noticeable until this time of year.