Observe the southern magnolia, seen here in a ubiquitous piece by artist Martin Johnson Heade, one that appears over mantels and sofas and elsewise in places of import in more Mississippi homes than you can imagine — more than you might imagine, in this modern age, where we value irony so.
Magnolia is the everlasting symbol of the state of Mississippi, my ancestral home. It is its state tree and its state flower. Like cotton, its history is bound up in the state’s history, though various species of the Magnolia genus made Mississippi their home millions of years before state boundaries were drawn. Wherever you go, there is Magnolia.
My mother hates this painting. I can’t say I blame her. My parents raised me to reach for more and better, so beleaguered were they of the same old thing, and thus magnolia mantel art, the same old thing for longer than anyone could remember, was the object of scorn.
In real life, the tree itself, ersatz though it may be in art and state culture, is a presence too big to ignore.
Yes, it’s a story you’ll hear me tell over and over in this space. Having removed to the North, I realize now how I love magnolia. In the pronunciation of its very name, Magnolia, it whispers something very elemental of the South –- the way the hard first syllable bumps into the next three, and those you have to roll around a little, a gentle gargle, all jostling amiably to be the first out. It’s a name that requests languid pronunciation, like chewing peanut brittle, so that one might deliberate.
Three magnolias made their mark on my early life. The first is the giant southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) that grows on the northeast corner of North First and West Third Streets in Pickens, Mississippi, in what was once a schoolyard. It’s a short walk from my grandparents’ home, and in summers when I’d visit, it was my climbing tree of choice. Pickens is a tiny town, forever locked in an inexorable postmodern-Southern Gothic slide into ruin. At the top of that tree, the panorama of that place radiating from my small feet to the curvature of the horizon, I may have grasped for the first time how much more world was out there. The school across the yard is gone now, but the climbing tree still stands. I suspect it will long after the town breathes its last.
My second and perhaps favorite magnolia is lesser known Magnolia virginiana, the sweet bay magnolia. This spritely, more demure tree inhabits woods behind my childhood home, where it grew larger than I’ve ever seen it. Its flowers are lemon-scented. Its seeds are bright red, like its larger cousin’s in miniature.
Most mysterious of the three is the bigleaf magnolia, Magnolia macrophylla. A lone specimen grew in those same woods, down a deep, dark trail, by a deep, dark pool in a bend in the creek, looking for all the world like the tree time forgot. The clearing where it grew was perfect for it -– sheltered by other trees from wind, assured a shaft of light by the space created by the pool –- and I long to know whether it’s still there. Here was the only spot I ever camped in those woods, under the auspices of that otherworldly tree. Even as children, we knew it was something special. It was a monolith. It made us feel like explorers.
So what IS Magnolia, botanically, historically, culturally? Still with me? Read on→
Magnolia is a member of the Magnoliaceae family, a plant family to which it lends it name. It’s a family of trees and shrubs so old their flowers are set up to be pollinated by beetles instead of bees, because hey, bees weren’t around yet. Fossilized members of the Magnolia family from millions of years ago have been found that are identical to those of today.
The genus and family Magnolia are named for French botanist Pierre Magnol, the man who invented the idea that plants should be grouped into families. Imagine that.
Magnoliaceae is a large family with lots of different groups. Besides all the Magnolia species we know and love, it includes the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), the tallest hardwood tree in the eastern U.S., as well as many analogous Asian trees and shrubs like Michelia figo, the banana shrub, loved by my grandmother as Magnolia fuscata. (She often dropped her R’s in the southern way, and for years I thought it was called “magnolia for scatter.”)
Asian magnolia family members and the tulip tree are valued as timber, but historically magnolias’ value to man lies in man’s fondness of it as an ornamental tree. Magnolia’s cultural station in my formative years should be fairly obvious by this point in the entry, but just to be clear, magnolia shows or has shown its face in my home state on everything from license plates and commemorative quarters.