An Ode To The Evergreen Magnolia

I discovered a fragrantly flowering Great Laurel Magnolia on my walk today. This plant blooms from late spring to early summer and can be found in the southeastern United States, from southeast Virginia to central Florida and then across to East Texas and Oklahoma and even as far North as Maine. Often growing on the edges of swamps or large bodies of water, this tree prefers moist soil but cannot tolerate inundation [1] Also known as Southern Magnolia, it has one of the most strongly scented flowers in the world [2] so I hovered a bit longer like a hummingbird.

Magnolia grandiflora as it is scientifically named, is the official state tree of Mississippi and its flowers are the official state flower of Louisiana. The generic name of Magnolia was in honour of the French botanist, Pierre Magnol, a professor of botany and medicine at Montpelier, who died in 1715. It is also called the Evergreen magnolia for it does not shed its leaves in the temperate climes.

Now imagine this genus Magnolia, the majority of which species occur in East and South East Asia, where a little over only one-quarter of the species are natives of the New World, from the North East United States (one species just extending into Canada) to northern parts of South America. More than half of the entire species are tropical, thus it should come as no surprise that the Flora of China published in 2008 (Xia et al. 2008) consists of a separate taxonomy for the genus Magnolia that the Chinese botanists adhere to [3]. Botanical nomenclature under the current International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN) is quite an effective way of establishing plant identity and there’s a tremendous amount of effort that goes into identifying and naming plants, but classifying them taxonomically requires scientific consensus as the agreement on circumscriptions (or the content of a taxon) is not governed by the Codes of Botanical Nomenclature. The delimitations therefore or circumscriptions of many taxa that had been regarded as stable for decades, like in Magnolia for instance, are in a state of flux, given the rapid developments in molecular phylogenetics [4] This may be of interest to a plant enthusiast.

The use of Latin, for plant binomial nomenclature does well for academics, horticulturists and enthusiasts, but it is actually the vernacular names (which have no code of governing bodies to subscribe and adhere to) that add layers of charm to a plant. Now, Magnolia grandiflora is also called Bull bay because many broad-leaved evergreen trees are known as bays (many Magnolias for example), with this species thus named for its huge size of leaf and because cattle have been reported eating these. I couldn’t find any other literature than this reference in support for this reasoning. [5]

A paper I read, that makes the case for recording, preserving and documenting local names of plants says “local names play a very important role in the ethnobotanical study of a specific tribe or region. Local names given to plants by indigenous people in their local dialects often reflect a broad spectrum of information on their understanding of plants. Most often, the local names are given based on some salient features, e.g. appearance, shape, size, habit, habitat, smell, taste, colour, utility, and other peculiar characteristics of the plants.” [6] Common names help situate a plant in our immediate context and environment by adding layers of meaning to their existence and ours. It enables us to take ownership of the surrounds and become aware and protective towards plant habitats. Many Magnolias are threatened by deforestation and habitat degradation, that has been highlighted in ‘The Red List of Magnoliaceae’ (Cicuzza et al. 2007) in which it has been observed that 131 of the 245 members of Magnoliaceae – over half – are facing extinction in the wild.

This beautiful dense tree is not only a chaos of disconnected names but can also be a great understorey selection for a garden as I have already had the pleasure of seeing this year. The tree has stout twigs and branches which have a fuzz, known as tomentum, which can be a white to rusty red color and like in most species of Magnolia, the bark emits a pleasant aromatic odour when crushed. The lovely canopy forms a dome shape with dark green glossy leaves and brown velvety undersides. It is also an economically useful timber tree, not simply a dainty ornamental, in that the wood can actually be used to craft furniture and veneers. The plant even contains phenolic constituents shown to possess significant antimicrobial activity, against Gram-positive bacteria and Fungi.

I was very thrilled to discover this Southern beauty on my walk and here is an earlier post and poem about the Bigleaf Magnolia I encountered on a walk along the Highline in NYC. They say that “no group of exotic trees gives more distinction to a garden than a comprehensive collection of magnolias. There is not one that is not worthy of cultivation.” [3] I am therefore privileged to have seen two species in bloom this year, which I have now come to admire for their hardiness, dignified that they are with the largest leaves of all evergreens and a spectacular size of individual flowers. Magnolia they say, symbolise magnificence, dignity and perseverance and I should think hardiness and resilience too.

Process: I wrote the poem as a tribute to this garden divinity. I learned a lot about the Great Laurel Magnolia this evening so this will be a long poem, a botanical one that has each stanza initiated by a vowel. I also used the concept of a gonadal intersex in it since it would be incorrect to allude to the Magnolia grandiflora as feminine, considering the flowers are perfect and hermaphrodite with both reproductive structures creating a bulbous torus.

An Ode To The Evergreen Magnolia

A timber tree, dignified and espaliered to the light,
dispels any dark sentiment in fragrant blooms, amidst
a leafy dome in the glossy emerald sheen of soft resilience.

Early summer and it's warm, sometimes cold, but never old,
for time runs on evergreen and brown velvety undersides,
unravelling on fuzzy twigs; merely trestles for mammoth blossoms

Intending to sparkle in Eden of thick leafy grandeur.
What pantheon hosts this delightful Dionysus, tepals
around a torus, swathed in stamens and pistils*.

Orange arils** are pendulous drops of blood, revealing
blessed heart of a grand flower, fruiting compassion
in stigmata, in fluid meanings to florid fruit.

Understorey dapples countenance of noble beauty,
so shy under canopies of towering trees,
finally emerging transcendent towards sky.

And if any flagrant wind swaddles in dry demeanour
this acid hardy being that's loathe to argue with
the heated weather, it petulantly wears the loss of vigour.

Exemplary great laurel of life, wandering tomes in taxa,
stringing appellations in a shivaree, for while Systems Men
conjure and constellate, Bull Bay simply trek across the land.

Inciting wonder at their reluctance to seed the loam,
for when science speaks of bio-rhythms, sweet magnolia
wax dormant to the sound of a different drum.

Outstanding garden divinity, created when God planned
His own demise in this beautiful balance of soul
perfection sired by Hermes and Aphrodite.

Underscored by the need to umbellate the landscape,
this southern perennial spread to a whole New World
in diverse avatars of a strange hybrid philosophy.


Notes on the Magnolia grandiflora that may be of interest from a botanical perspective and have aspects featured in the poem:

Picture Credit: Catesby’s Laurel tree of Carolina by G.D. Ehret from Wikipedia

Magnolias are evergreen or deciduous trees or shrubs with alternate, entire, pinninerved leaves. Stipules are present and initially enclose the terminal bud, later falling leaving a scar; they are often called ‘perules’ when covering an overwintering flower bud, and are often attractively hairy. Magnolia flowers are solitary, hermaphrodite or rarely unisexual; they are terminal on long shoots or on short axillary shoots (brachy-blasts). The floral parts are arranged in turn along an elongated receptacle; the perianth is composed of six or more distinct petal-like tepals, and occasionally the outer three tepals may differ from the inner ones; stamens are numerous, spirally arranged and flattened and the anther is poorly differentiated from the filament. The pistillate part of the flower (gynoecium) may be sessile or stipitate (with a stalk). Carpels are numerous (rarely solitary) and spirally arranged; they may be free (apocarpous) or fused (syncarpous). Fruiting carpels (follicles) are usually dehiscent, and each produces one or more large seeds. The carpels may be fleshy, and can fuse together to form a berry-like fruit (the term ‘fruit’ will be used here to refer to the aggregate of follicles, whether fused together or not). After dehiscence, the follicles often become woody and persist on the tree. The seeds each have a red or orange fleshy aril and are often pendulous, hanging out from the carpel on a slender thread (Chen & Nooteboom 1993). (https://treesandshrubsonline.org/articles/magnolia/)


Picture Credit: Yale Nature Walk [1] The seeds each have a red or orange fleshy aril and are often pendulous, hanging out from the carpel on a slender thread. An aril, also called an arillus, is a specialized outgrowth from a seed that partly or completely covers the seed.

The leaves are alternate, simple and entire, with stipules that are free from the petiole in some species, in other adnate to it. Flowers bisexual, produced singly at the end of a shoot; peduncles with one or more spathe-like bracts. Perianth of six or nine (occasionally more) segments known as ‘tepals’, arranged in whorls. In some species the tepals of the outer whorl are small and sepal-like; in describing these species it is usual to term the outer whorl a calyx and the inner segments petals, but in no species of magnolia is there a complete differentiation of the perianth into calyx and corolla. The stamens are numerous, spirally arranged to the lower part of structure (the torus), the upper part of which bears numerous free carpels, also spirally arranged. In the fruiting stage the torus is much enlarged and the carpels split on their outer side to release one or two red, scarlet, or orange seeds, each of which is attached to the carpel by a silk-like thread. Seeds of magnolias are sometimes very long in germinating. It is interesting that a batch of about two hundred seeds of Magnolia wilsonii, ripened at Kew once, remained dormant after sowing for over two years, then germinated simultaneously with scarcely a failure. (https://treesandshrubsonline.org/articles/magnolia/)

In Greek mythology, Dionysus is best known as the god of wine, Dionysus was also the god of intersex and transgender people. But it is actually Hermaphroditos, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, the gods of male and female sexuality, who is the god of hermaphrodites [6] In humans, conditions that involve discrepancies between external genitalia and internal reproductive organs are described by the term intersex and such conditions are extremely rare in humans but in true gonadal intersex (or true hermaphroditism), an individual has both ovarian and testicular tissue [8] I used the gonadal intersex concept in the poem since it would be incorrect to allude to the Magnolia grandiflora as feminine, considering the flowers are perfect and hermaphrodite with both reproductive structures creating a bulbous torus.

References:

[1]~https://naturewalk.yale.edu/trees/magnoliaceae/magnolia-grandiflora/southern-or-bull-bay-magnolia-78

[2]~https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Magnolia+grandiflora

[3]~https://treesandshrubsonline.org/articles/magnolia/

[4]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circumscription_(taxonomy)

[5]~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnolia_grandiflora

[6]~https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303279897_Importance_of_local_names_of_some_useful_plants_in_ethnobotanical_study

[7]~https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/ErosHermaphroditos.html

[8]~https://www.britannica.com/science/hermaphroditism

*The stamens are numerous, spirally arranged to the lower part of structure (the torus), the upper part of which bears numerous free carpels, also spirally arranged.

**The seeds each have a red or orange fleshy aril and are often pendulous, hanging out from the carpel on a slender thread. An aril, also called an arillus, is a specialized outgrowth from a seed that partly or completely covers the seed.

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