Yesterday we visited the National Trust property of Knighthayes in Devon, and although we have visited many times before, this was the first time we managed to catch magnolias in their glory. There are several magnolia trees in our village, smallish, between five and fifteen foot high, maybe some a little bigger, and I love their glorious display, the soft, velvety flowers, the pure colours, which are so striking against the leafless dark wood of the tree.

The magnolias at Knighthayes were extraordinary; as well as the smaller varieties we knew there were huge, wonderful trees with enormous plate-sized flowers, petals bigger than my hand and of fabulous colour. The day wasn’t brilliant, the weather wasn’t perfect, but the blossoms were.

Most of the trees we see now are hybrids, but these ancient trees have been on this plant for millions upon millions of years, before there were even bees – originally they were pollinated by beetles, which accounts for their massive and distinctive flowers. Fossilised magnolias have been found which are older than twenty million years, and related plants are even older, going back to nearly one hundred million years ago!

I’ve learned a new phrase,  ‘disjunct distribution’, which means  a distribution ”that has two or more groups that are related but widely separated from each other geographically’ so magnolias can be found naturally mainly in east and southeast Asia, but also in eastern North America, Central America, the West Indies, and  South America.

Their name was first given to them in 1703, in Martinique, where Charles Plumier named the trees he found after the famous botanist Pierre Magnol. as with most natural things, the tree has other uses than being spectacularly attractive, Chinese and Japanese medicine, as timber, the leaves as food wrapping, and the flowers are state symbols for Mississippi and Louisiana, and the national flower of North Korea.

As you might imagine there are many artistic connections, the films ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Steel magnolias’, and songs by The Grateful Dead and JJ Cale. However, perhaps the most famous, moving and tragic song which mentions magnolias is Billie Holidays ‘Strange Fruit’ which mentions the scent of magnolias – the trees from which many lynchings took place…


Magnolias flower so briefly and yet they are so glorious when they do; and even when they have shed their flowers, for a while the separate petals are wonderful to pick, soft, velvety. like a lovely fabric, but sadly a lovely fabric that turns brown and withers.

There are several in our village, big trees which have a few days of looking magnificent before the wind takes their flowers. Most magnolias are deciduous and they usually flower in the spring on bare branches.Some, however are ever green and they flower later and then in the autumn have wonderful pods with bright red bead-like seeds.

I’d love to have a magnolia, but I don’t think our soil is right, and we are in a very windy position; we are at the top of the road and across the fields from the other end is the sea and the wind comes straight off it and rushes over to batter our garden… so no magnolia for us! I once bought my mother-in-law a magnolia stellata such a pretty little thing with its flowers really looking like bright stars; sadly the council gardeners mowed it down…

There are many different species of magnolia, named after a Frenchman, Pierre Magnol; he was a very famous seventeenth century botanist but he didn’t discover the magnolia, it was a contemporary French botanist called Charles Plumier. Just imagine if Plumier had been less generous; these beautiful, fabulous trees could have been called plumiers!