Across a Rainbow of Hardiness ~ a botanical pantoum for the bigleaf Magnolia along the Highline

Plants differ in the way they survive and thrive across varied temperatures; a very harsh sun and lack of water begets leaves modified into spines (Cacti) or the retreating tenderness of succulents (Euphorbia), a lack of sun and locked winter water spawn needles (Gymnosperms) or simply a flat existence (lichen). Yet, lichens, Cacti and Pines can thrive in very many places other than these extreme conditions, although they require an environment which is amenable to the modifications of their plant body. There is a lesson in the 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, which is the standard by which gardeners and growers determine the locations of where plants are most likely to thrive. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones (Fahrenheit) [1].


The bigleaf magnolia or Magnolia macrophylla, discovered by the French naturalist Andre Michaux in June of 1795 near Charlotte, North Carolina, is a plant that thrives and is winter hardy to USDA zone 5, it suffers tip damage in Zone 4, where the minimum average temperature ranges from -20°F to -30°F [2]. It is a plant discovered for June, for summer and it was surprisingly used by landscapers along the Highline in Manhattan, given that it’s leaf litter does not decompose easily, which causes a litter problem of very large leaves. It also grows quite tall, averaging up to 40 feet; the national champion that resides in Kentucky is all of 108 feet tall with a 42 foot spread. This little giant also prefers well-drained sand or loam and it must be a feat of engineering to have made the aerial garden on the highline conducive to the growth of bigleaf Magnolia.

Magnolia macrophylla at the Highline, Manhattan

It’s June and Pride month, suffused in rainbows and the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is as good a rainbow as any other. I was fortunate to see the summer blooms and thought to learn more about this plant. It struck me as a poem, gestating, and up until this morning I couldn’t decide what this rainbow plant should help me explore except that there are limits to its spread, much like a succinct poem, concise verse within which it can grow leaves as broad as a flag prone to wind damage, and produce flowers like a prayerful incantation within this so called coarse appearance. Now, bigleaf is an aspiration to Onomatopoeia [3] by a plant that cannot speak and does not sound. The flowers of Magnolia symbolise nobility, perseverance, love of nature, femininity, gentleness, but this is a coarse giant and meanings are fluid. For me, the bigleaf Magnolia runs the gamut of Magnificence, the Magdalene of alternating leaves, the Magi of June flowers, magnified emotion, magniloquent petals, archetypal leafy magnanimity, all things bigleaf Magnolia.

June Foliage

The limits of habitat, leafy incantation (an alternate arrangement), the mimesis in words which symbolise Magnolia for me and I could only think of one form of poetry to write – the Pantoum. The pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The last line of a pantoum is often the same as the first. Ernest Fouinet is credited with introducing the form to European writers that was later made popular by Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire [4]

It is a form of poetry that originated in the Pantun, which is a type of old Malay poem or literature composition which depicts courtesy, politeness, the sensitivity of a community towards nature, the scope of it’s communality and culture [5] in precise rhyming sequence and syllabic length (8 to 12), two complete (mostly unrelated) couplets in each quatrain, the first half, the pembayan (shadow) which sets the rhythm and rhyme of the whole poem, and the second half, the maksud (meaning) delivers the message [6]. Muhammad Haji Salleh calls Pantun, the poetry of passion. In his book of the same name, he notes that the significance of Pantun as a definitive Malay oral heritage may be traced to the phrase, “rendang kayu kerana daun, terpandang Melayu kerana pantunnya,” “the tree is shady because of its foliage, the Malay is admired because of his pantuns” (p. 3) ; he states that Pantun is part of the culturally sanctioned greetings between the representatives of the bridegroom and the bride upon their arrival at the bride house during a marriage and is a customary exchange at a Malay wedding [7].

Elements of a Malay Pantun include metaphors, similes, symbols, personifications, eponyms, allusions, idioms and proverbs. Katharine Sim translated a Malay Pantun that illustrates an association of ideas in the two disconnected couplets that are linked through assonance and the traditional meaning of symbols [8].

Tanam selasih di tengah padang, 
Sudah bertangkai diurung semut,
Kita kasih orang tak sayang,
Halai-balai tempurung hanyut.

I planted sweet-basil in mid-field
Grown, it swarmed with ants,
I loved but am not loved,
I am all confused and helpless.

Sim, Katharine (1987). More than a Pantun: Understanding Malay Verse. Singapore: Times Publishing International
Source: Wikipedia~

Judi Van Gorder cites Miriam Sagan, who wrote thus about the Western Pantoum in her 1999 work, ‘Unbroken Line: Writing in the Lineage of Poetry,’ that the Pantoum is a “slinky going down a flight of stairs–it is smooth, fluid, and repetitious….Its repetition and circular quality give it a mystical chant-like feeling. Its cut-up lines break down linear thought. The form is both ancient and fresh.”[9] Miriam Sagan describes and illustrates the Pantoum quite well at her own blog [10] but it is Judi Van Gorder’s brief explanation that should sum up the form as well as help you get started on the Pantoum if you so desire [11].

The elements of the Pantoum by Judi Van Gorder (Source~ 

Accentual syllabic verse, most commonly iambic tetrameter or iambic pentameter, but the number of metric feet is unimportant as long as the lines are all the same length. It is stanzaic, written in any number of quatrains.
repetitious. All lines of the poem will be repeated once. L2 and L4 of each stanza is repeated as L1 and L3 of the succeeding stanza. L1 and L3 of the 1st stanza is repeated in reverse as L2 and L4 of the last stanza ending the poem on the same line as it began. (It is permissible, but less common, to use the L1 and L3 of the 1st quatrain in the same order as originally written to end the poem with L3 of the 1st quatrain.)
usually rhymed, the Pantoum employs alternate rhyme with a rhyme scheme of A¹ B¹A²B² B¹C1B²C² C¹D¹C²D² D¹E¹D²E² . . . . . and so on until the last quatrain H¹A²H²A¹.
flexible, a variation on the Pantoum is to substitute a rhyming couplet of L1 and L3 from the 1st quatrain to end the poem instead of ending in a quatrain

I have attempted to write a Pantoum along the lines of a Malay Pantun, with syllabic rhythm, repetitive chant, interlocking verse, metaphorical first couplet alluding to the ‘maksud’ or meaning in the second. I may have to come back to this poem to give it finesse as it is a form I am as yet unfamiliar with, to compose poetry of any refined measure or regard. It is therefore a work in progress.

I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the Pantoum and Malay Pantun as much as I delighted in writing it.

Across a Rainbow of Hardiness ~ a botanical pantoum for the bigleaf Magnolia along the Highline
by Davina E. Solomon

She's risen coarse on rusted tracks,
through sandy loam, a summer sheen.
Rainbows are but colour barracks,
fair violet, through verdant green.

Through sandy loam, a summer sheen
sparked exile of Fall's fleeting mist.
Fair violet, through verdant green,
adds tint to sun in pigment grist.

Exile sparked in Fall's fleeting mist,
cleared light, silky ivory.
Adds tint to sun in pigment grist,
silhouette of this noble tree.

Cleared light, silky ivory
are petals cast in modest mould.
Silhouette of this noble tree,
tattered leaves, raging wind unfold.

Petals cast in a modest mould
are magi of summer solstice.
Tattered leaves, raging wind unfold
simply envy of breezy fleece.

Magi of the summer solstice,
Purple blush on sun dipped petals.
Raging envy of breezy fleece,
Scalding wind that scarcely settles.

Purple blush on sun dipped petals
Rainbows are but colour barracks.
Scalding wind that scarcely settles,
she rises coarse on rusted tracks.

Unopened bud

Literary Devices mentioned in the text:

Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech in which a word imitates the natural sounds of a thing it wishes to describe, like the tick tock of a clock, the cuckoo, the meow of a cat, the oink of a pig, the buzzing of bees, the rustling of leaves. The word helps evoke the image of the very thing it seeks to define.

Assonance ~ a repetition of vowel sounds in words that are close within a sentence or phrase of prose or poem.

Personification is a bit like anthropomorphising, providing human characteristics to non human objects or organisms.

Allusion is a brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance ( It is defined as an expression, designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly; in an indirect or passing reference, is sometimes used as an artistic device.

An eponym refers to a person or thing after which something else is named as in Mason Jar named after John Landis Mason, a tinsmith who invented the jar popular jar in 1858. (

An idiom is a phrase that conveys a figurative meaning different from the words used, they can act as euphemisms, allowing the author to discuss uncomfortable topics indirectly. All idioms (on our current definition) use metaphor to some extent ( Eg: The phrase ‘long in the tooth’ means that someone or something is old, ‘to bite the dust’ is a euphemism for dying.













One thought on “Across a Rainbow of Hardiness ~ a botanical pantoum for the bigleaf Magnolia along the Highline

  1. Pingback: An Ode To The Evergreen Magnolia – The Erudite Boeotian

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