When Spring arrives, my heart leaps. Suddenly I’m aware of bees, and perfume in the air. Blossom trees are everywhere- an avenue of white-flowered Manchurian pears on Church Street; pink prunus scattered all over town. But whilst all this is happening, one of mother nature’s megastars is putting on a stunning show of its own, in gardens all over Mudgee.
These megastars are the magnolias: in my opinion, they’re in a class of their own. Mature specimens in full bloom are simply magnificent. Their masses of large flowers have a grand sculptural quality. And their sweet fragrance attracts bees by the thousands!
One of Mudgee’s spectacular magnolias, in Dewhurst Drive
My family home had a magnolia tree, and it was unlike any other flowering plant I’d seen. The gradual swelling of the teardrop shaped, downy grey-brown flower buds on the bare branches, marked the slow passage of Winter. As Spring arrived, splits appeared in the buds, and a glimpse of pink petals would show through.
Before long, the buds would burst and a gigantic flower would appear, at least 10cm tall, with voluptuous, waxy pink-and-white petals. The tree would be covered with them. To add to the magic, their delicate sweet fragrance filled the air.
Kylie’s goblet magnolia blossom underplanted with lovely yellow pansies
Magnolias have an incredibly ancient lineage. Their ancestors were among the first flowering plants to appear on the Earth’s land surface. The magnolias in our gardens today have barely changed over the last 100 million years. Fossil flowers are rare- the delicate petals generally don’t survive the processes of fossilisation- but recent genetic studies and the existing fossils of the more robust plant parts (leaves and fruiting bodies) of magnolias, clearly show the similarities.
Left- Magnolia virginiana, a present-day magnolia; right- scientific interpretation of the original magnolia flower, over 100 million years ago [Guardian Australia]
Fossil of magnolia fruiting body [photo credit: i.pinimg.com]
Around 110 million years ago, when the first flower on Earth’s land surface opened to greet the sun, it was probably a magnolia. By then, plants had been growing on the land surface for about 400 million years, but they were without flowers, and the landscape colours were mostly green and brown, dominated by conifers and more primitive plants (similar to the “horsetails” and “club mosses” which still grow today).
Club moss- Photo credit: Greengirlygarden.blogspot.com (left) and Horsetail- Photo credit: Cambridge2000.com (right)
Imagine the transformation of the earth, with the appearance of the pure pastel colours of these first flowers, and the first beautiful sweet fragrance ever to exist. Imagine the impact on the birds, on the bees and other insects, and on the dinosaurs!
Left, Shiralee’s blossom; right, Kylie’s blossom
Artist’s impression of magnolia and dinosaurs by John Conway.
Gorgeous portwine magnolia in Market Street
Bountiful blossoms, Redbank Road
Today, magnolias form a large, varied genus of 100 or more species of deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs.
The flowers are generally large and fragrant, and come in white, yellow, pink or purple. They vary in shape from flat and saucer-like to a narrow goblet shape.
The fruits are cone-like or roughly cylindrical. The flower buds are frost sensitive. They can be propagated from cuttings in Summer or seeds in Autumn, or by grafting in Winter.
Magnolias require deep, fertile, well-drained soil. Some species require alkaline soil where others prefer a mildly acid, humus-rich soil. They thrive in sun or part-shade but need protection from strong or salty winds. The roots are fragile so the plants do not transplant readily. It’s best to plant them out in June, and to do so with great care to avoid disturbing the root system.
Kylie’s magnolia, only 2 years old and covered with buds. Despite the frost damage from our fierce Mudgee winter, the flowers, when open, are sublime.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the magnolia flower is associated, in art and literature, with dignity, nobility, perseverance and a love of nature.
Thank you to Kylie and Shiralee, for allowing me to photograph your lovely magnolias, and to Michael, for taking so many great photos.