Choose a country to see content specific to your location

Skip to main content

A Brief Look at The History and Origins of the Magnolia Tree

Published on March 31st 2019
A close up of a flower
One of the earliest memories of my childhood home is a glorious Magnolia my dad took great pride in trying to control. The bathroom window framed it perfectly, and in spring it sang with the most magnificent flowers.
My more recent experience has been with my grandmother's. Driving along the road and seeing the expanse of white flowers, it was always a sign we'd almost arrived, and the spoiling was about to commence.
I've since found out that Magnolia has a much more interesting history than my memories of homemade millionaire shortbread.
A magnolia in full flower in front of a car and a brick built garage.


The Magnolia tree's flowers are so unusual because they belong to a genus older then bees. Its carpels (the female reproductive part) are extremely tough and evolved to be pollinated (we think) by beetles. It shares similar traits with other plants (Amborella and Nymphaea), that are found at the base of the flowering plant Angiosperm family tree.
The natural range of the magnolia has a 'disjunct distribution', i.e. two or more closely related groups separated by geography. They can be found in East and Southeast Asia and North and South America, including the West Indies.
This separation is thought to have been caused by continental drift. This is supported by the age of the genus and the fact that species with very similar DNA are located in both areas, even though they have been isolated for a long time.
An unopened pink bud and a pink flower on a branch of a Magnolia tree.


The current classification system of Magnolia has been created by the Magnolia Society, and recognises three subgenera with 12 sections and 13 subsections. However, the introduction of DNA testing 30 years ago enabled detailed research into the genus. This has led to the need to rename or regroup some plants to show their actual relationships. Unfortunately, botanists have yet to decide on what or how this will happen. So we will all have to watch this space.
A close up of a white and pink magnolia flower


Apart from providing us with a stunning display of flowers, humankind has found additional uses for this ancient tree.
M. acuminate (Cucumber tree) and Liriodendron tulipifera (Tulip tree), another member of the Magnolia family, are both harvested for their wood and sold as 'yellow poplar'.
But we have used it more prolifically for its culinary uses. The buds of M. grandiflora can be picked to flavour rice and scent tea, while the petals have been used as a spice. In Japan, the flower buds and young leaves of M. hypoleuca are eaten as a vegetable, while the older leaves of M. obovata are used for wrapping food and cooking dishes.
M. officinalis and M. obovata are both used in traditional Chinese medicine and are known as hou po (厚朴).
A close up of the open flowers of a magnolia tree

In the Garden

There are so many different magnolias to choose from, but two of the earliest flowering magnolia's are M.stellata (Star magnolia) and M. x soulangeana (Saucer magnolia). Both of these beauties produce their flowers in early Spring before the leaves appear, giving the flowers pride of place.

Star Magnolia

Magnolia stellata

A close up of a bunch of pink Magnolia x soulangeana flowers

Saucer Magnolia

Magnolia × soulangeana

If you have space and want to extend the flowering season, then you could add M. virginiana (Sweetbay magnolia) or M. grandiflora (Southern magnolia), who both produce their flowers slightly later in the year.
A pink flower of a magnolia on a branch.
I love magnolias and firmly believe that any decent sized garden should have one of these statement trees. Just be prepared for a lot of sweeping or picking up flower bracts and tepals; my childhood chore if I wanted a second helping of Millionaire Shortbread!

Related articles


Gardeners Question time - Magnolia

Every year I give a talk at my local garden club. It's an event I look forward too as members send in lots of interesting and...

Bee-Friendly Plants - Magnolia × soulangeana Magnolia

The Magnolia known for it showy display in Spring best grown as a freestanding specimen or against a evergreen backdrop.