Spring in the English county of Kent, or in Washington D.C., or the Japanese prefecture of Kyoto, brings a sea of cherry blossom. Elsewhere, the magnolia bursts onto the scene.
Magnolia grandiflora, commonly known as the southern magnolia or bull bay, is native to the southeastern United States. It is an evergreen tree that can grow 90 feet in height, with dark green leaves and large, white, intensely fragrant flowers.
The State of Louisiana chose the magnolia as its official flower in 1900 because of its abundance. After a poll of school children in November 1900, the magnolia was also chosen as the state flower of Mississippi, but it was only officially named as such in 1952. And the magnolia was also designated as the state tree of Mississippi on April 1, 1938.
One admirer of Magnolia grandiflora was the American writer and artist Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-92). Born in Virginia, he graduated from Columbian College (now George Washington University) in 1832 and Harvard Divinity School in 1835. Cranch served for a short time as a Unitarian minister, then moved to the Ohio Valley where he edited the transcendentalist magazine Western Messenger with theologian James Freeman Clarke.
Cranch went on to write and publish four volumes of poetry (he was a prolific writer of sonnets), two sets of children’s stories, and translations from German and Latin (notably Virgil’s Aeneid). He was also an accomplished landscape painter in the manner of the Hudson River School – a mid-19th century American art movement strongly influenced by romanticism.
Cranch admired nature and wrote a much anthologised poem “To the Magnolia Grandiflora”.
“Majestic flower! How purely beautiful
Thou art, as rising from thy bower of green,
Those dark and glossy leaves so thick and full,
Thou standest like a high-born forest queen
Among thy maidens clustering round so fair,—
I love to watch thy sculptured form unfolding,
And look into thy depths, to image there
A fairy cavern, and while thus beholding,
And while thy breeze floats o’er thee, matchless flower,
I breathe the perfume, delicate and strong,
That comes like incense from thy petal-bower;
My fancy roams those southern woods along,
Beneath that glorious tree, where deep among
The unsunned leaves thy large white flower-cups hung!”