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Magnolias steal the show

Magnolia x soulangeana

27 March 2017

Buddhist monks, plant explorers who risked life and limb and a retired cavalry officer in Napoleon’s army are just some of the people we have to thank for the dazzling magnolias in our gardens today.

Magnolias are one of the earliest flowering plant families on the planet. When they first appeared, there were few of today’s pollinators in existence so they relied on beetles for pollination. While the fragrance of most flowers comes from the nectar produced in the nectary glands, magnolias had not developed these glands. They still needed to attract beetles in the forests so they developed volatile oils in the flower’s anthers which served its purpose.

Another marketing trick magnolias use, explains Curator, Nick Wray is to provide a thermal reward for the beetles. The flowers generate a very small amount of heat which encourages the beetles to shelter in the flowers. The magnolias develop plenty of pollen which is an important protein source for beetles. They are not able to eat it all, so take parcels of pollen with them onto the next plant.

The genus name, Magnolia honours the French botanist, Pierre Magnol (1638-1715)

Many Asiatic magnolias are precocious bloomers with the spectacular flowers appearing before the leaves. They explode in a fragrant, very dramatic scene in late winter and early spring.

The shape of the stunning flowers range from giant saucers, exotic goblets and starburst blooms, while their colours vary from ivory, white, rosy pink to purple. Some white flowers carry a purplish tinge at the back of the flower..

This article highlights just a few of the Magnolia delights at the botanic garden. Inside the moon gate entrance of the Chinese medicinal herb garden, we meet Magnolia cylindrica, so called because the bright red fruit is cylindrical. Many species grow wild in China and are used in traditional Chinese medicine. First collected by Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson,it is now on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Major threats include the collection of flower buds for medicinal use and general forest clearance which are believed to be having detrimental effects throughout the species range.

The story of plant evolution is told at the Botanic Garden in the Evolutionary Dell’s timeline covering 500 million years of plant evolution.

One of the visitors’ favourite show stoppers is Magnolia x soulangeana, the saucer magnolia. It was bred initially by a retired cavalry officer in Napoleon’s army, Etienne Soulange-Bodin at his château at Fromont near Paris. He crossed Magnolia denudata with Magnolia liliiflora in 1820 and was impressed with the resulting progeny's first precocious flowering in 1826. The flowers range from purple, pink to pure white versions with the base of the sepals highlighted in pink. Curator, Nick Wray explained how some of the plant collectors who saw the Asiatic magnolias in the wild and collected their seed, never lived to see them flower, because the plants do not become sexually mature until 20-30 years after sowing the seeds.

Another delight which is in the Evolutionary Dell is the pink Magnolia sprengeri var.Caerhays Form,’ first collected by Ernest Wilson. This tree has a small delicate fragrance. Wilson was paid £100 a year and expenses by the famous Veitch nursery to collect plants in China. His experiences of plant collecting are straight from a boy’s own magazine with tales of bandits, landslides and the like. In addition to training locals to be porters and seed collectors, he himself, often dressed as a Chinaman to escape recognition.

The Angiosperm Phylogeny display which features the latest research in plant classification has more magnolia treasures, including Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’. This huge eye-catching magnolia was found in 1924 by George Forrest in NW Yunan province at 10,000-11,000 ft.

Magnolia stellata ‘Waterlily’ from South Honshu in Japan is another one of the precocious flowering magnolias. Before the leaves appear in early spring, pure white, spider-like flowers emerge in profusion from velvety buds. Each scented flower can grow up to 12cm in diameter, so when in full flower, it makes quite an impact. One specimen at the botanic garden is carrying around 200 flowers this spring.

One of the most beloved of all magnolias is Magnolia denudata. Called "Yulan" or "Jade Lily" by the Chinese, the exquisite lily shape of the white blossoms (some with a tinge of pink at the base of the tepals), has the longest history of magnolia cultivation going back to the Tang Dynasty – 618 AD, when it was propagated and expanded by Buddhist monks. Introduced by Joseph Banks in 1780, its open flower signified “purity and openness”.  Its beauty was celebrated on ancient Chinese embroideries, scrolls and porcelains in scenes of the countryside. Its elegant flowers made it "a gift worthy of an emperor." The tepals (petals and sepals that are not differentiated) are also known as a delicacy, dipped in flour and lightly fried. Today, very old gnarled specimens can be found in Chinese temples and other public places throughout China.

It is remarkable that even today new species of hardy woody plants continue to be discovered in China, presenting ongoing opportunity for plant introduction into the west. So it is fitting to end this article with one such “new” plant in the Botanic Garden. Magnolia zenii, or Zen Magnolia, is an extremely rare, endemic tree from Jiangsu Province, China. It was first collected in flower, in 1933 by W.C. Cheng on Mt. Boa-hua. The tree was first brought into cultivation at the Jiangsu Institute of Botany and Botanical Garden, Memorial Sun Yat-sen, in Nanjing. In 1980, seeds were presented to members of the first Sino-American Botanical Expedition. The first flower opened in 1988. They are extremely fragrant and the tepals are marked with rose-purple streaks on the lower half of their outer surfaces.

I wonder what new Magnolia surprises will turn up next!

Alice Maltby