The magnolia tree is prized throughout the South for its towering height, glossy leaves, and tremendous flowers. But these beautiful plants aren't exclusive to the southern region of the United States. There are many varieties of the magnolia throughout Asia and the Americas. Although it is one of the oldest plants in existence, it wasn't called the magnolia until the 18th century. Long used for medicinal as well as ornamental purposes, the magnolia is now one of the most popular plants in the world.
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An Ancient Species
According to Gary W. Knox of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the magnolia is one of the oldest plant species, with fossil remains dating back 36 to 58 million years ago. The magnolia developed long before bees did, so beetles pollinated the flowers. Therefore, the carpels of the magnolia flower are relatively sturdy, to protect against damage from crawling and eating beetles. During the Ice Age, glaciers destroyed many ancient European forests, but not those in Asia or the Americas, resulting in plants that have wide distributions, like the magnolia, which is commonly found in China, Japan, North America, and South America.
Magnolias have been cultivated in Asia since the 7th century and used for medicinal reasons since 1083. To the ancient Chinese, the flowers of the "Yu-lan" variety (Magnolia denudata), also called the Jade Orchid, were considered a symbol of purity, and they were grown in temple gardens since the 7th century. The Magnolia officinalis, or "Hou-phou" was cultivated for its bark's medicinal qualities. The Woody Orchid (Magnolia liliflora), known as "Mu-lan" in Chinese, was grown for grafting stock. The Japanese have grown magnolias for centuries in indoor pots, and called them "Shidekobushi" or "zigzag-petaled Kobushi Magnolia." The first Asiatic species were introduced to Europe and the Americas in 1780. Carl Peter Thunberg was one of the first botanists to collect and describe Japanese magnolias in 1794.
In South America, magnolias were known to the Aztecs as "Eloxochitl," or the flower with the green husk. In 1570, the Spanish physician Francisco Hernandez took a scientific expedition to Mexico and created drawings of the Eloxochitl, which were re-edited and published in Europe in 1651. The Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), found throughout the southern United States, was first introduced to Europe in 1731, and quickly became popular because of its shiny evergreen foliage, graceful form and huge flowers. It was often planted in front of early American homesteads, and it is now considered the most widely planted ornamental evergreen tree in the world, according to Knox. Early settlers in the mid-Atlantic and southeast regions of North America made a tincture from the bark of the Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) to treat coughs, colds and fevers. John Bannister, a missionary, sent what is now known as the Sweetbay Magnolia from Virginia to the Bishop of London in 1688.
The Cucumber Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), which is named for its green fruit that looks like a cucumber, has long been valued for its light, durable timber and was used by Native Americans to make canoes and boats. John Clayton made the first scientific observations of the Cucumber Magnolia in 1736, and the species was first exported to Europe in the 1800s, where it became popular in the finest gardens and landscapes. According to Arborday.org, American pioneers used the bitters extracted from the Cucumber Magnolia fruit with whisky to treat fever and the wood to build furniture and housing materials.
In 1703, botanist Charles Plumier wrote about a flowering tree on the island of Martinique, and he named the flower after Pierre Magnol, a 17th century French botanist. The plant was locally known as the Talauma, but the name magnolia stuck. Botanist William Sherard used it, and the famous Carolus Linnaeus adopted the name and used it in his book, Systema Naturae, in 1735. As more and more species of the genus were discovered all over the world, the genus was divided into Magnolia and Yulania. Today, Magnolias are commonly found in the Americas, and Yulanias in Asia.
As magnolias became more popular, intense breeding programs began hybridizing magnolias to develop varieties with more numerous flowers, a wider range of flower colors, and later-blooming plants whose flowers would not be destroyed by late frosts. Hybridization began in the early 19th century and continued until the 1960s. These hybrids resulted in better-quality ornamental trees, which are now among the 10 most popular flowering trees in the United States, according to Knox.
A Symbol of the South
After a statewide election of school children in November 1900, the Magnolia was chosen as the state flower of Mississippi, and it was officially named as such in 1952. After being chosen in a similar election, the magnolia was also designated as the state tree of Mississippi on April 1, 1938. Louisiana chose the magnolia as its state flower in 1900 because of its abundance throughout the state.