Plantcestry™: Magnolia

by Andrew Keys on March 30, 2010

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

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