The southern magnolia is one of the best known trees in Mississippi, Louisiana, and throughout the south-eastern USA. No other tree has its combination of lustrous green leaves and fragrant white flowers. Paradoxically, poets seem to have overlooked it in favour of the linden and the lilac, yet there is one for whom the tree represents all that is glorious in the Old South.
The magnolia is a native tree of the south-eastern USA and grows naturally from North Carolina to Florida, and west through Louisiana and Arkansas to eastern Texas. Favouring the rich moist soil found along the borders of river swamps, it reaches heights of 60 to 90 feet and trunk diameters up to four feet. The dense crown is made up of numerous small spreading branches and, unpruned, the magnolia’s limbs sweep gracefully down to the ground.
Mississippi adopted the southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) as its State tree in 1938. The magnolia’s flower was designated its official flower in 1952. Of course, Mark Twain was familiar with the potency of the magnolia and refers to them both in his novels and in his memoir Life on the Mississippi (1883) – incidentally the first book submitted to a publisher as a typewritten rather than handwritten manuscript:
“Baton Rouge was clothed in flowers, like a bride – no, much more so; like a greenhouse. For we were in the absolute South now – no modifications, no compromises, no half-way measures. The magnolia-trees in the Capitol grounds were lovely and fragrant, with their dense rich foliage and huge snow-ball blossoms. The scent of the flower is very sweet, but you want distance on it, because it is so powerful. They are not good bedroom blossoms – they might suffocate one in his sleep” (Chapter XL).
But it is Patricia Neely-Dorsey, born in Tupelo, located in the red clay “Hills” of Mississippi, who has taken on the role of “Goodwill Ambassador” for the State and the South. After studying psychology at Boston University and living in Memphis, Tennessee, she returned to her hometown to pursue her vocation as a poet. In 2008 she published her first book, Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia: A Life in Poems (Grant House Publishers). It includes “The Magnolia Tree”:
“There’s a majestic, old magnolia tree,
That stands in my front yard;
It’s a tree that’s grown there for ages,
And whose beauty you can’t disregard.
She spreads her branches quite nobly,
And her stance is that of a queen;
She stretches her arms so commandingly,
As if certainly crying out to be seen.
She’s the center of much activity,
And I know a squirrel family lives there;
I’m sure she affords them much comfort,
For her branches don’t ever go bare.
There’s so much that’s gone on around her,
I’m sure that so much could be told;
But, she keeps all her secrets well guarded
And, simply, remains a sight to behold.”