Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Magnolia: Early Mammals and Britney

Magnolia trees, some of the oldest flowering plants to have survived, link fuzzy condylarths to Britney Spears.


Magnolia campbellii x M liliiflora ‘Nigra’

Photo: Julia Hoerner and John McCormick

for Peckerwood Garden

Yesterday at Peckerwood Garden, a magnificent collection of rare plants in Hempstead, Texas, we had the pleasure of learning a great deal from plantsman and artist John Fairey. His eye, industry and expeditions have put together a wonderland in East Texas – where contemporary sculpture dwells with prehistoric cycads, and shrubs clipped into globes snooze under Japanese conifers.

Among Peckerwood’s many attractions is its wealth of magnolias. Fairey said that these are some of the oldest trees on earth, which came as a shock to me. Those gleaming leaves that decorated our mantelpiece at Christmas time, the pods slit open with red seeds, and cream-and-lemon scented blooms seemed late-Baroque, not prehistoric. But I was about 50 million years off.

imageChriacus, a species from the magnolia’s Eocene era

Image: Paleocene Mammals

This excellent article by Gary Knox for the Florida Extension Service presents a thoroughgoing description of this old timer tree, a list of the varieties that do best in Florida, and a bibliography. Knox writes that the 80-some species of magnolia originated in Eastern Asia and the Eastern Americas. Early fossils of magnolias date from the Eocene Age just after the demise of dinosaurs, when condylarths roamed the earth, creatures hooved, clawed, chunky, and ratty.

“Surviving magnolia species represent some of the more primitive flowering plants,” he writes. “Magnolia flowers do not have true petals and sepals but are composed of petal-like tepals. Flowers do not produce true nectar, but attract pollinating beetles with fragrant, sugary secretions. Magnolia flowers are primarily pollinated by beetles of the Nitidulidae family because magnolias evolved long before bees and other flying pollinators.”

The idea of a tepal is a bit slippery for us non-botanists to grasp. “It corresponds to the sepals and petals in the flowers of other plants, but unlike these, all tepals are of the same form, not being differentiated into the protective, not insect-attracting sepals that serve to protect the developing bud, and larger, insect-attracting petals.” I think I get it: The earliest flower buds didn’t need protection or glamour just “fragrant sugary secretions.” Pretty basic.

imageBritney Spears down on the Old Plantation

In the U.S., magnolia is an emblem of the Deep South. Dominatrix of the Plantation, the creamy blossom symbolizes Southern womanhood in its grandeur, lushness and sinister force. No surprise that Britney Spears, a native of Louisiana, would try to bottle that power. Her perfume Curious is said to contain “Louisiana magnolia.” Here she is looking bayou born, predatory and Gone, with or without the Wind, a pose designed for a non-differentiated audience.

For more on this intriguing plant, Eliot Tozer’s article provides profound truth (“Deterring deer is a black art”), other magnolia information and trend-spotting. “Yellow magnolias,” varieties like ‘Elizabeth” and ‘Butterflies,’ “have taken this country by storm.”

Sounds like a primeval tale to me: here come the blondes.

Posted by Julie on 07/17 at 12:14 PM
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