Magnolia flowers, some perfumed, some relaxed and spreading, others slender and pointed or even globular burst forth from the barren limbs after shedding their bristly flower caps (called “perules”). They are the largest single flowers outside the tropics. The Arboretum collection contains over 60 different types of magnolias, with over 40 of them being represented in the Meadowbrook section.
Although they may appear contemporary, with a look that could be at home in front of an open ceiling mid-century modern style house, these plants have an ancient lineage. Among the first true flowering plants, magnolia fossils over 100 million years old have been found; they came to dominate the pre-ice age landscape across the world from 65 to 1 million years ago. After the glaciers finally receded, the once great forests of magnolias were gone, except for the few temperate areas of the world, like parts of China and North America, that escaped glacial ravaging. Magnolias are pollinated by beetles, common insects of the time.
The species that were the starting material for the modern deciduous flowering magnolias came from China. In cultivation there for over 1400 years, monks would collect specimens of Magnolia denudata from the local mountains and transplant them on the temple grounds where they represented the female yin and principles of candor and purity. But it wasn’t just the magnolia’s beauty that interested the Chinese; magnolia species like M. officinalis and M. denudata were used medicinally as well. Recent research has shown that magnolias are extremely useful medicinally. M. officinalis, called “Hou-phu” by the Chinese, is used for coughs, colds and as a tonic. In a recent experiment published in the Journal of Pharmacology, Honokiol, a compound found in the bark extract of M. officinalis was determined to be five times as potent and much less addictive than Valium for relieving anxiety. Interestingly, a man who probably could have used such a tranquilizer was responsible for the next step in mankind’s relationship with this beautiful and useful flowering tree.
In the early 19th century, Chevalier Etienne Soulange-Bodin, a disgruntled cavalry officer, treated himself for post traumatic stress by losing himself in the world of plants and gardening. Disgusted with the Napoleonic wars in which he fought (and of which he wrote “It had doubtless been better for both parties to have stayed at home and planted their cabbages”), he founded the Royal Institute of Horticulture at Fromont near Paris. It was Soulange-Bodin who developed the first Magnolia x soulangiana hybrids by carefully transferring pollen from Magnolia liliiflora to the the female flower parts of Magnolia denudata. The hybrid plants that resulted from these crossings sported impressive tulip-like blooms in shades ranging from white, to pink and even darker colors approaching purple. From 1830 on Soulange-Bodin’s hybrids became immensely popular in Great Britain, a popularity that has yet to wane and has encouraged other efforts at hybridization.
One of those programs was undertaken at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington D.C. Started by staff geneticist Francis de Vos and continued by horticulturalist William Kosar, their efforts to cross certain varieties of Magnolia liliiflora and Magnolia stellata resulted in a series of eight hybrids that were nicknamed by staff as the “Little Girl Magnolias.” Another ambitious hybridization program was started in Santa Cruz by Magnolia Society founder D. Todd Gresham. Wanting to produce distinctly “Californian” hybrids, he began his efforts with three hybrids chosen for their ability to flower early and their extremes in color and hardiness. From 1955 to 1966 Gresham was able to perform over 300 crosses, resulting in over a thousand hybrid magnolia seedlings, including one growing here at the Arboretum, Magnolia ‘Royal Crown’.