“Southern” Magnolia Blossom
The Magnolia genus is at least 100 million years old. Bees and butterflies didn’t exist then, so the trees relied upon beetles for pollination. Their early ancestors, one of the first flowers on earth, lived on the supercontinent of Pangaea 250 million years ago, then spread to Laurasia (Europe and Asia) 200 million years ago. French botanist, Charles Plumier, discovered the tree on the island of Martinique and named it after Pierre Magnol, a French botanist whom he admired. Today, there are 210 diverse species of magnolia trees. They can grow up to 30’ tall and spread 25’. The early-spring blossoms can spread to 10” in diameter.
Buds on a “Saucer” Magnolia Tree
According to Chinese feng shui, a magnolia planted in front of the house attracts the energy of pleasure and rest; planted behind the house it symbolizes a slow but sure acquisition of wealth. More generally in China, it symbolizes purity and nobility. There, and in Japan, the extract of the tree’s bark has been used as a medicine for 2000 years. The Japanese consider Magnolia blossoms to be “Hanakotoba,” indicating sublime, natural, love for nature. In Europe, there was a custom to offer a magnolia blossom to the return of an old love after being unfaithful. In the United States, the extract is used in medicine and in the cosmetic industry, and the flower is strongly associated with the South. It’s the state flower of Louisiana and Mississippi—the “Magnolia State.” And due to the scores of magnolia trees growing along the Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas is sometimes referred to as “Magnolia City.”
The Saucer Magnolia (shown here and above) was the first to be hybridized. It’s a cross between Magnolia denudata and liliiflora, first raised near Paris in 1826 by Etienne Soulange-Bodin, a French army officer. Today, it’s the world’s most widely planted garden Magnolia, with many cultivated forms.
The title of the 1989 movie “Steel Magnolias,” is a reference to the magnolia’s ability to withstand harsh conditions. In the movie, six women “endure” a barrage of hardships and eventually rise above them. Each time we see the tree blooming, it can remind us that we can endure life’s challenges well, face them squarely and make the best of them.
This is especially the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we pause and turn inside, the ancient roots of the magnolia recommend patience and endurance. One of the great lessons of evolution is that each species must either learn to adapt to changing conditions or perish. Our current challenge is necessitating an adjustment, not only in lifestyle but in how we think about and relate to one another and the planet as a living system. It’s important to realize that the virus itself is a living system, born of the earth and multiplying according to the design of life—to make more of itself. This is not to minimize the lethal consequences for our species if we let it go unchecked, just to underline one of the lessons that nature is teaching us—that we’re all members of one body, a living integrated system that’s mutually responsive.
Besides the quarantine advantages, our being told to “stay at home” can be seen as a call to be patient, return to center and take advantage of the opportunity to cleanse ourselves of inherited norms surrounding excessive consumption, increase our appreciation for services and people we previously took for granted, consider our real needs versus wants, shift from a quantity to quality mindset and reprioritize in order to lay a solid foundation for life in the new reality.
I’ve always loved magnolia trees and their blooms — there’s something so beautiful about a magnolia blossom. It demands attention, and you can’t help but love those big, creamy petals and that fragrant smell.
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