Magnificent Magnolias

Starlike flowers of Magnolia stellata in the front garden. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Botany in the time of Coronavirus is restricting our movements to a single daily walk. Our gaze is naturally limited to the garden, or as far as our legs can carry us while respecting social distancing. Some of Somerset’s botanical hotspots are therefore tantalisingly out of my reach. There is nonetheless much overlooked springtime beauty within the confines of the garden and just beyond the garden path. One such star-performer is Magnolia stellata currently blossoming in our front garden. Magnolias seem to thrive in the South West of England. Many gardens are closed to visitors for the foreseeable future. I can transport you from Somerset to Cornwall using my stock of flower photographs.

The Caerhays Estate boasts some magnificent spring colour in a stunning Cornish coastal setting. I was lucky to visit the gardens on a sunny April day in 2017. Caerhays Castle is home to the National Collection of Magnolias.

Tregothnan’s Head Gardener told me that there is an intense rivalry to be the first Cornish garden with 50 Magnolia flowers in bloom. I saw Tregothnan’s Magnolias during its annual open weekend.

In 2017, I visited almost all the Great Gardens of Cornwall and a few of the smaller gardens. I was lucky to see Magnolias at Heligan, Lanhydrock, Eden Project, Trewidden and St Mawgan’s Japanese Garden. One of my personal favourites follows:

Stunning flower of Magnolia ‘Genie’ x soulangeana x lilliflora ‘Nigra’. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Evergreen

Magnolias are not just for springtime. I discovered the evergreen Magnolia grandiflora in flower in August 2017 at Anthony House. It grows both in the grounds and trained against the house walls around the courtyard. The huge, cup-shaped flowers can grow up to 25cm in width.

Evolution

Magnolias are not just stunning flowers to a botanist. Their evolution is also fascinating. The Magnolia evolved before bees. It is believed that they are designed for flightless beetles as pollinators.

Magnol

Magnolia is named after the French botanist, Pierre Magnol (1638-1715). He came from a background of apothecaries and physicians as many other famous botanists. Magnol was the first to use the concept of plant families in botany. He referred to combined morphological characteristics.

Magnol was a Professor of Botany and Director of the oldest French botanic garden in Montpellier. His Protestant faith at a time of religious discrimination in Catholic France cost him much early recognition. Many eminent French botanists studied under him and acknowledged his expertise. Others built upon his initial concept. His work was much admired by Linnaeus.

© Karen Netto (Andrews)

References and Further Reading

Great Gardens of Cornwall

Le Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier 1593: Magnol: families of plants. Last accessed 29 March 2020.

Harrison, Marie (2015): Beetles and their Role in Pollination. Dave’s Garden. 23 April 2015. Last accessed 19 April 2020.

Gallery of Images

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