There must have been a time when half the world was covered in magnolias – and no one there to see it. Today they still cajole and delight the eye.
The earliest known flowering plant is not a magnolia, but one called Amborella (left) which appeared while dinosaurs still lived in Pangaea, the name given to the supercontinent of the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras (300 to 200 million years ago). At that time, flowering plants (angiosperms) diverged from non-flowering seed plants (gymnosperms). Amborella, a shrub with small, unimpressive flowers, is today only found on New Caledonia, in the Pacific.
There are fossil remains of magnolias in rocks dating back at least 65 million years. After Pangaea broke up, the present arctic zone was covered in forests of magnolia, liriodendron (related to magnolias), liquidambar (sweetgum) and gingko. Magnolias even evolved before bees and so their flowers were pollinated by beetles. To put this in perspective, Homo ergaster, widely accepted as the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens, lived in eastern and southern Africa during the early Pleistocene, between 1.8 million and 1.3 million years ago. Magnolias were around for aeons before human beings ever saw them – and marvelled.
Today there are some 80 species of magnolia that grow naturally in two distinct temperate and tropical regions of the world – eastern America and eastern Asia. Magnolias are subdivided into two groups. The first, called Yulania, is deciduous and comprises plants that flower before or at the same time as their leaves. The other, called Magnolia, is characterized by the flowers appearing after the leaves and comprises both deciduous and evergreen species.
Henry Compton (1632-1713), Bishop of London and head of the church for the newly founded American colonies, was one of the great gardeners of his day. He instructed the missionary John Banister, who had shown great interest in botany while an undergraduate at Oxford, to send rare species of plants back to England. In 1688 he sent the bishop a Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). By 1737 Magnolia grandiflora was growing in Britain and in 1789, the Chinese Yulan or Lily Tree (Magnolia denudata) was sent from China to the naturist Sir Joseph Banks for his garden in West London. The Chinese varieties of magnolia were found to be very hardy and could be grown outdoors.
It was in 1703 that the French botanist Charles Plumier (1646-1704) had named a flowering tree from the island of Martinique after Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), a physician and botanist, who was the first to propose a natural classification of groups of plants with common features. In Magnol’s day it was believed that all species had come into existence by divine creation according to the Book of Genesis. The great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus adopted the name magnolia in the first edition of his Species Plantarum (1753), the starting point for plant nomenclature as it exists today.
In China the medicinal qualities of magnolias have been known for centuries. An infusion of the bark of Magnolia officinalis (Hou-phu) was used for coughs and colds and as a tonic during convalescence. In the American colonies the bark of Magnolia virginiana was known for its curative properties and was used for skin diseases and as a mouthwash.
A symbol of the American South, Magnolia grandiflora is the state tree of Mississippi and the state flower of Mississippi and Louisiana. The flower was also an emblem of the Confederate army in the US civil war. Its fragrance can be overpowering and Native Indian tribes were said to avoid sleeping beneath flowering trees because of their hallucinogenic effect. Another richly scented magnolia is Magnolia hypoleuca, the Japanese cucumber, a forest tree from the island of Hokkaido.
The world is vastly different since the first people set off on their long walk to adventures unknown. But there are still signs of what it must have been like before,
“They, hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”