Beijing, 4 April 2014
One of my abiding memories of Vienna is the magnolias in flower. I suppose it’s always the case that the first months you spend in a new place imprint themselves more forcefully on your brain’s virtual retina than the remaining years. We arrived in Vienna in February, two months later the magnolias were in bloom. It seemed that every garden and every park had its magnolia tree.
We would pass one particularly magnificent specimen as we drove the children up to school every day. It was like living in a multiple exposure photo. Every day, as we swept by, we would note its progress, as the buds opened fully, and then the decay, as the flowers wilted and scattered their petals over the pavement.
A month or so later, it was the turn of the city’s multitude of lilac bushes to bloom, another fond memory which I have of Vienna and one about which I have had cause to write an earlier post.
Yes, they were good times.
And then, when my wife and I came to Beijing, we found our friends the magnolia trees here, waiting to greet us with their blooms after we emerged from our first Chinese winter. A sight for sore eyes, let me tell you, after all that grey dryness of a Beijing winter. There was a pure white variety
as well as a pinker type which we were familiar with from Vienna.
Then, with the passage of time, I discovered that this tree, which I had, without really thinking about it, assumed was European, was actually Chinese! Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. There are nearly hundred different types of magnolia native to China (out of 200-plus native to Asia). The beautiful white magnolia pictured above, which comes from central and eastern China, grabbed the Chinese headlines early on. With its flower rightly regarded as a symbol of purity, it was planted in Buddhist temple gardens and the gardens of the emperors from as early as 600 AD during the Tang dynasty. It is called the Yulan, or jade lily, magnolia; I presume the name refers to the jade-like glossy smoothness of the magnolia’s petals and the sometimes lily-like look of the flower.
Magnolias of course became favourite subjects of the poets, seeing as they spent hours haunting such gardens.
Here is the poem Magnolia Slope by Wang Wei, who lived in the 700s AD and is considered “the consummate master of the short imagistic landscape poem that came to typify classical Chinese poetry” (in the words of David Hinton, who made the admirable translation below).
Lotus blossoms adrift out across treetops
flaunt crimson calyces among mountains.
At home beside this stream, quiet, no one
here. Scattered. Scattered open and falling.
As with many things Chinese which were considered the nec plus ultra by the East Asian fashionistas and trend followers of yesteryear, the cultivation of these magnolias was taken up with enthusiasm by the Japanese, from whence – like the Chinese ginkgo tree of which I have written earlier – it made its way to Europe. And there, in 1820, in the grounds of his château of Fromont near Paris, an ex-cavalry officer turned plantsman, Étienne Soulange-Bodin, crossed the Yulan with the Mulan and created the hybrid saucer magnolia.
With its large, early-blooming flowers in various shades of white, pink, and purple, this cultivar became immensely popular and spread around Europe (including Austria, no doubt, because I’m sure the Viennese magnolia I described above is one of these), the US, and eventually – I suspect – China, in hundreds of different cultivars as plant breeders continued to play with its gene pool.
Here I have to pause, to consider that other great reservoir of magnolias, the Americas. I said earlier that Asia boasts 200 or more types of magnolias. The Americas are host to another 90 or so. In fact, it was in the Americas, in the Caribbean island of Martinique to be exact, that in the 1690s a French botanist by the name of Charles Plumier discovered and named – in the modern scientific nomenclature; of course it already had a native name, the talauma – the magnolia, after yet another French botanist Pierre Magnol (a lot of French botanists in this story …). I haven’t found a picture of his original drawing of the magnolia which he came across but this one will do as a substitute.
This picture, with its flower surrounded by a thick crown of leaves, sums up nicely a perplexity I had until I did some reading for this post. When we had been in the US, we had come across the southern magnolia, which looked something like this specimen
that is to say, very thick foliage with a few flowers sprinkled over the whole.
Very beautiful flowers, by the way.
I couldn’t relate all this to the magnolias like those above, which are first completely covered with flowers and only get their leaves after the flowers have fallen. Well, the fact is, they are – botanically speaking – part of the same family. It’s just that it’s a very large family (some 300 members all told), and like in all large families distant cousins don’t necessarily resemble each other very much.
Which brings me to my final coda. The magnolia cousins have drifted so far apart because it is an old – very old – genus. It branched off the main tree of trees, if you get my drift, 100 million years or so ago. Fossils of plants identifiably belonging to the Magnoliaceae have been found dating back to 95 million years ago, while a 20 million year-old fossil has been found of the cucumber magnolia, which is native to the Eastern US and has this small flower with lovely yellow hues (in fact, these yellow hues as well as the tree’s cold hardiness have been exploited to create new yellow-flowered hybrid magnolias).
Magnolias are so ancient that they came on the scene as flowering plants before bees, or butterflies, or moths, existed to help along with pollination. So magnolias have evolved to use for pollination the only insects which were around at the time, beetles or flies.
And this co-existence with beetles explains the rather leathery petals magnolias have. Compared to bees, beetles are clumsy insects, clomping around all over the flower and with a tendency to snack on the petals as well as the nectar. The leathery petals protect the flowers from these lumbering but necessary partners in the act of procreation.
Oh, and by the way, magnolia flowers don’t actually have petals, they have tepals. And that’s because the flowers are quite primitive, so their sepals and petals are not distinct and differentiated (no idea what that really means, but it sounds impressive).
Magnolia in Vienna: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2542/3753020942_3f6c39bb5f_o.jpg [in https://www.flickr.com/%5D
Yulan Magnolia tree in Dajue western temple: http://www.beijingrelocation.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/magnolia.jpg [in http://www.beijingrelocation.com/blog/beijing-trees/%5D
Magnolia tree in Tanzhe temple: http://www.travelchina.gov.cn/picture/0/1403261604282295162.png [in http://www.travelchina.gov.cn/art/2014/3/26/art_15_1202.html%5D
Mulan Magnolia: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d6/Magnolienbluete_freiburg.jpg/800px-Magnolienbluete_freiburg.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnolia_liliiflora%5D
Poet in garden: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/Wang_Xizhi_by_Qian_Xuan.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_garden%5D
Southern magnolia: http://whangareiflora.weebly.com/uploads/8/4/3/9/8439522/6466041_orig.jpg [in http://whangareiflora.weebly.com/exotic-trees.html%5D
Southern magnolia-flower: http://www.magnoliasociety.org/resources/Pictures/images/cultivars/msieboldi8422.JPG [in http://www.magnoliasociety.org/MagnoliaResources%5D