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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!