Dear Readers, I am just about to put Mum and Dad’s bungalow up for sale – we need the money to pay for Dad’s nursing home fees. However, Mum was a great lover of colour, and we suspect that some rooms (the candy-pink living room, for example, or the aquamarine bedroom) might need a coat of a rather more neutral paint to enhance the property’s sale price.
‘Magnolia?’ asks the decorator, and I agree. But then I get to thinking what a ridiculous name for an off-white paint this is. Some magnolias are pure white, some are tinged with pink, some are bright pink. None of them are a vague kind of cream colour.
For most of the year, magnolias sit around greenly, doing plant-y things but without much in the way of berries or autumn colour. But goodness. A magnolia in full flower is one of those miracles of the plant world, one of the few trees that can actually stop me in my tracks. I particularly like the old-school magnolias like the one above, with their waxy blossoms opening slowly and prolifically. One storm can ruin it all for the year, of course, but if you’re lucky, they can produce a show worth pondering.
Of course, I missed the height of the flowering of the tree above, but you get the idea.
And here is one from Montreux, in full flower.
Magnolias belong to a very old family of plants (fossil magnolias have been discovered from 95 million years ago), and evolved before bees did. Instead, they are believed to have been pollinated by beetles, and as a result have very tough carpels ( the female reproductive part of the flower) as presumably the beetles were rather more thuggish in their attentions than the later pollinators. Some species of beetle actually ate the magnolia while others distributed the pollen and some did both, so I imagine anything that slowed up the destruction of the flower was a good thing.
There are over 200 species of magnolia, and they grow in Asia and the New World, but not in Europe or Africa. It had never occurred to me, but I associate magnolias both with the paintings of Chinese artists, and the plantation houses of the Deep South of the USA. Siebold’s Magnolia is the national plant of North Korea, while Bull Bay or the Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is the state plant of Louisiana and Tennessee.
The association of the magnolia with the Deep South has resulted in many artistic connections. The film ‘Steel Magnolias’ featured a group of women who lose their one of their own, and explores their resilience. The poster reads like a summary of the key female actors of the period, and won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Julia Roberts.
In 1939, however, Abel Meeropol’s song ‘Strange Fruit’, memorably sung by Billie Holliday, referenced the magnolia tree as a symbol of the southern US where many lynchings of black people took place:
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
If trees could speak, I sometimes think they would tell some of the saddest and most brutal stories on earth. From the blasted oaks of the battlefields of the First World War to the tropical trees of Vietnam and Cambodia, they have borne unwilling witness to our worst atrocities.
With all those waxy petals waiting to be plucked, you might expect someone to have tried eating magnolias, and you would be right. The flowers can be pickled, the buds can be used to flavour rice, and there is even a type of miso which is flavoured with magnolia. Pickling the petals apparently started in England, but I can’t find a specifically English recipe. The ever-interesting Eat The Weeds website does suggest how to do it, however, and mentions some other flowery favourites as well.
Humans and beetles are not the only creatures who like to take a bite out of a magnolia – in the USA it is the food plant of the magnificent Giant Leopard Moth(Hypercompe scribonia). The male reaches 2 inches in length and has a three-inch wingspan, which would give any one pause. When the male finds a female, mating can take up to 24 hours, and during this period the male will pick the smaller female up and carry her to a warmer spot if it gets too cold. What a gent! However, mating can rub some of the scales off of the female’s wing, impairing her ability to fly.Should mating be successful, there will soon be the patter of many tiny furry feet. How I love ‘woolly bear’ caterpillars! And this species is said not to cause dermatitis either, so you can admire them at close quarters.
The timber of some magnolias is also used, particularly in the northeastern USA and southern Canada, where the Cucumbertree (Magnolia acuminata) is often harvested. Unlike other magnolias, the flower of this species is not very showy, though the fruit might give you pause.
The wood is fairly soft, and is used in everything from pallets and boxes to furniture.
And, naturally, here is a poem. I love this work by Lisel Mueller who was Illinois Poet Laureate. It is full of nostalgia for the joys of spring.
by Lisel Mueller
This year spring and summer decided
to make it quick, roll themselves into one
season of three days
and steam right out of winter.
In the front yard the reluctant
magnolia buds lost control
and suddenly stood wide open.
Two days later their pale pink silks
heaped up around the trunk
like cast-off petticoats.
Remember how long spring used to take?
And how long from the first locking of fingers
to the first real kiss? And after that
the other eternity, endless motion
toward the undoing of a button?
Photo One by By Roylindman at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17959956
Photo Two by By Wendy Cutler from Vancouver, Canada – 20120522_CamelliaPath_OyamaMagnolia_Cutler_P1240017, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22926817
Photo Three by By Josep Renalias Lohen11 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27938081
Photo Four by By Jeremy Johnson – http://www.meddlingwithnature.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41471642
Photo Five by Phlintorres98 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
Photo Six by Asturnut at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Photo Seven by By MikeParker (talk) – Photo taken by Michael Parker, CC BY 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17722886