The magnolia tree has been found in fossils dating back 36 million to 58 million years. Flowering plants only began to appear during the Cretaceous Period (145 to 65 million years ago); before that most trees had been seed-bearing plants or plants with cones.
The ancestors of many flowering tree species appeared during the Cretaceous, including the magnolia. So, the magnolia tree is considered to be a “living fossil” alongside the gingko, walnut, maple, fig, fan palm, cycad, monkey-puzzle tree, and several ferns. The magnolia sprang into existence long before bees or other flying insects so, unusually, pollination was done by beetles instead of bees.
There is a theory that the Ice Age that enveloped much of Europe destroyed the region’s magnolias, but those in Asia and the Americas survived. Today, according to Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), over half the world’s magnolia species are facing extinction in their native forest habitats. Apart from the loss of one of the natural wonders of the world, the significance of this catastrophe lies not only in the threat to the genetic diversity of the family, but also because they are a highly sensitive indicator of the well-being of the forests in which they grow.
Some two-thirds of known magnolia species are found in Asia, with over 40% occurring in southern China. According to BGCI half of all wild Chinese magnolias are at risk of extinction. In the Americas, north and south, where magnolias are also found in the wild, a similar picture is emerging.
The line “Loveliest of trees” comes from a poem by A. E Housman, memorably set to music by George Butterworth in “A Shropshire Lad”. Housman’s tree is, in fact, the flowering cherry, which he describes as “wearing white for Eastertide”.
It was Walt Whitman who included the magnolia in his “Poem of Joys” published in Leaves of Grass (1900). It is an apt description, for who has not experienced the elation of seeing a magnolia tree in blossom? And who would not feel a primeval sadness if the magnolia ever became extinct?