A history of the magnolia

Frequently residing in front gardens, the Magnolia is appreciated by-and-large for its amenity value. Whilst there is no question that the genus produces some stunning specimens, its rich history is also something to be admired.

The origin of the Magnolia

Fossil records suggest that the genus has existed from the Cretaceous period (145-66 million years ago), making the Magnolia the first flowering plant. Before this time, only conifers and cycads graced the earth – which themselves came after both ferns and horsetails. Its historic distribution, prior to the last age, would have been across most of mainland Europe and the rest of the northern hemisphere, though since the last ice age its native range has predominantly been Asia and eastern America – the mountain ranges across Europe, which span east to west, restricted the retreat of plant species (as seed could not feasibly retreat over mountains), thus trapping them and sentencing them to death.

Its method of pollination was, and still is largely, through beetle-type insects. These beetles, which would travel between specimens, were attracted by the fragrance of the flowers, and the edible tissues and pollen contained within. In fact, to improve its means of successful pollination, the inner tepals of the flower could remain tightly shut for days on end, which allowed visiting beetles to feed safely and – at the same time – get covered in pollen. The Magnolia is however monoecious, meaning both male and female organs are found on the same specimen. To counteract the risk of self-fertilisation by visiting beetles, individuals will not mature their male and female organs at the same time. This enables pollen from one specimen’s male flower to reach the female organ of another.

Magnolia virginiana, introduced by John Bannister to the UK in 1688. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Magnolia hunters

The first Magnolia came to the UK in 1688 from the USA, courtesy of John Bannister. Bannister, a missionary, on his travels to Virginia, returned with Magnolia virginiana. Since then, a cascade of introductions occurred from the USA, and by 1800 most American species had been introduced and started being cultivated.

Records are less clear over when the Magnolia was first introduced from Asia, though it is considered that Magnolia denudata and Magnolia coco were both introduced around a century later than Magnolia virginiana – the former was brought over, in 1780, by Sir Joseph Banks.

The author of this book remarks that it was not these early Asiatic introductions that were so significant, but introductions from two plant hunters in the 20th century.

The first, George Forrest, was sent by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to collect plant specimens in Asia, though during his travels in China he remarked how dangerous it was – to the point that, in 1905, after the British begun invading China’s Lama (Tibet) region, any foreigner was seen as a threat. As a result, he and his team of 17 plant collectors had to flee, with hostile natives on their tail. After a period of nine days, and having stumbled into a village inhabited by friendly Lissoos (a sub-tribe of the Tibetans) at death’s door, the village leader managed to smuggle him and the only other survivor of his team out of China. On his travels, George Forrest managed to collect 31,000 plant species, of which eight were of the genus Magnolia and three new to cultivation.

The second, Ernest Henry Wilson, whilst having far less of a tale, introduced over 1,000 plant species from Asia into cultivation, including eight new species of Magnolia, making him the most significant ‘Magnolia hunter’ the world has ever seen. His introductions were: M. wilsonii, M. dawsoniana, M. delavayi, M. sprengeri, M. officinalis, M. sinensis, M. sargentiana, and M. s. robusta.

Magnolia wilsonii was introduced into cultivation by Edward Henry Wilson, before his death in 1930. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Source: Rankin, G. (1999) Magnolia. China: Hamlin.

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A history of the magnolia

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