Magnolias have a long history and are among the first flowering plants known to mankind. Discovery of fossilized remains of magnolia trees indicate that they date back to the Tertiary Period, which possibly is an unbelievable 100 million years earlier. This proves that these plants are real survivors, having endured numerous adverse conditions. During the Tertiary Period, the Arctic Circle was not what it is today, but its climatic conditions were similar to what is prevalent in Europe now. It is this reason why magnolias as well as their relatives like ginkgo and liriodendron grew extensively over a vast expanse in those times. Subsequently, when the climatic conditions changed dramatically and the polar ice spread to different areas, it destroyed the plants growing in these extreme northern regions. However, magnolias growing in different areas of China, some regions of Japan as well as the eastern parts of North America managed to survive. Hence, magnolias found in these parts of the world today have many parallels.
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It is interesting to note that magnolias emerged much before the bees existed. Hence, the blooms of magnolia were pollinated by beetles. Therefore, it is also not surprising that magnolia flowers have relatively strong carpels. This is mainly to safeguard the flowers from any damage that might be caused by creeping and eating beetles. It is documented that the glaciers destroyed several ancient forests in Europe throughout the Ice Age, but the forests in Asia as well as those in the two Americas were saved, thereby enabling the plants, including magnolia, to spread to various regions of the globe. Today, magnolias are found growing naturally in various parts of Japan, China, North and South Americas.
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Available documents show that people in Asia have been cultivating magnolias since long - ease early as the 7th century. However, they have been using the various parts of the magnolia trees for therapeutic purposes much later - sometime since 1083. The ancient Chinese considered the flowers of Magnolia denudata (locally known as "Yu-lan" variety), which is also known as the Jade Orchid, as a symbol of purity. As a result, they commonly cultivated this magnolia species in their temple gardens way back since the 7th century. Similarly, the ancient Chinese cultivated Magnolia officinalis (locally known as "Hou-phou") for the medicinal properties of bark of this tree. On the other hand, the Woody Orchid or Magnolia liliflora (loacally called "Mu-lan") trees were cultivated for use as grafting stock. Like the Chinese, the Japanese have also been growing magnolias for several centuries now, but they mainly grew them in pots as indoor plants and called the magnolias "Shidekobushi". They also referred to the magnolias as "zigzag-petaled Kobushi Magnolia". In 1780, the first magnolia species from Asia was introduced to Europe and, subsequently, to the Americas.
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These plants have been named Magnolia with a view to honour Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), a reputed French botanist. At the time of Pierre Magnol's death in 1715, there was just one magnolia species in entire Britain, which was the hub of all botanical development at that time. This solitary magnolia species was the evergreen Magnolia virginiana, which was obtained from North America. Magnolia virginiana is also referred to as sweet bay or swamp bay. John Bannister, a Virginian missionary who took a keen interest in botany, sent this magnolia species to Britain in 1688.
Present day gardeners generally do not grow Magnolia virginiana very frequently. This is possibly owing to the fact that now they are able to choose their magnolias from an assortment of selections. Nevertheless, Magnolia virginiana is not only a smaller variety compared to its cousin Magnolia grandiflora, which is also referred to as the Southern Magnolia, but it also bears sweet perfumed cream-hued flowers. Magnolia grandiflora is also known by other common names like great laurel magnolia or bull bay. Perhaps, the actual importance of Magnolia virginiana is that this plant made the Europeans familiar with a magnificent new genus, because Europe is not the original home for any deciduous or evergreen magnolia.
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Some time after Magnolia virginiana was introduced to Europe, in 1780, Sir Joseph Banks, who traveled around the Pacific Ocean along with Captain Cook during the later part of the 18th century, brought Magnolia denudate (also known as Yulan magnolia) to Europe. However, most of the magnolia varieties that we see today were only introduced in the 20th century, mainly by two British men named Ernest "Chinese" Wilson and George Forrest. In fact, a number of affluent European horticulturists sponsored George Forrest to undertake plant hunting. In return, these horticulturists became owners of the plants that were sent home by George Forrest. Today, gardeners remember George Forrest with profound gratefulness for the thousands of wonderful plants he collected - especially the magnificent Magnolia campbellii subsp. mollicomata, in addition to its wonderful cultivar "Lanarth". In 1904, George Forrest brought these plants home with him.
Interestingly, Sir Joseph Hooker was the first to introduce Magnolia campbellii in 1868 and named the plant in honour of Dr. Archibald Campbell, who was the British Empire's Political Resident in India's Darjeeling. Though both these magnolias belong to the same species, they are also different because the campbellii subsp mollicomata has its origin in China's Yunnan province. In addition, it also blossoms at a later period compared to the Magnolia campbellii, which has its origin in the Himalayas.
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Like George Forrest, even Ernest Wilson introduced several plants to Europe, counting eight new magnolia species. Currently, the magnolia species introduced by Wilson are grown extensively. The species introduced by him include Magnolia officinalis, Magnolia delavayi, Magnolia dawsoniana, Magnolia sinensis, Magnolia sargentiana, Magnolia wilsonii and Magnolia sargentiana robusta. Ernest Wilson served the Boston-based Arnold Arboretum from 1906 till his tragic death in 1930. In fact, there is no other plant hunter who has introduced such a large number of magnolia species.
After several magnolia species were introduced rapidly to Europe, North America and also other countries having temperate climatic conditions, plant breeders started developing exquisite hybrids from these original magnolia species. A retired army captain in France named Etienne Soulange-Bodin was among the earliest magnolia hybridizers. In 1820, Etienne crossed Magnolia denudata with Magnolia liliiflora (syn Magnolia quinquepeta) to develop Magnolia x soulangeana, a very resilient magnolia variety that has been a favourite of many gardens worldwide since long. Currently, no less than 40 varieties of this magnolia cultivar are grown in gardens across the world.
Several extremely beautiful magnolia hybrids have been developed since then. However, these cultivars have not been created from any specific plant breeding program, but owing to the endeavours of numerous enthusiastic gardeners. These magnolia cultivars came into existence either through hybridizing different magnolia species and cultivars or when gardeners noticed new plant seedlings by chance. In fact, several genuinely attractive hybrid magnolias have their origin in the gardens in Britain, such as the excellent "Charles Raffill", Nymans Garden (such as "Michael Rosse" and Magnolia x loebneri "Leonard Messel") and Caerhay's Castle ("Caerhay's Surprise", "Caerhay's Belle" and Magnolia sprengeri "Diva").
In 1956, Dr. Eva Maria Sperber successfully created a number of extremely appealing magnolia hybrids at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden by crossing Magnolia denudata and Magnolia acuminata. Incidentally, the Magnolia acuminata (also known as the cucumber tree) is an enormously great deciduous tree bearing yellowish-green blooms that appear after the leaves have emerged. This is one reason why the beautiful, multi-colored flowers of this magnolia species have a tendency to remain concealed. Hybridizers usually used this magnolia species to breed new cultivars that will produce yellow blooms on precocious magnolias - the magnolia trees whose flowers appear before their leaves, thereby creating plants that have a very impressive display.
Magnolia "Elizabeth" is the most popular hybrid developed by crossing Magnolia acuminata and precocious magnolias and it bears attractive bright yellow flowers. Subsequently, Dr. Eva Maria Sperber also crossed Magnolia acuminata and Magnolia liliiflora to create a cultivar named Magnolia "Eva Maria". Flowers of this magnolia cultivar have purple tepals (in magnolias, the sepals and petals are distinguished and together are known as tepals) that are overspread with yellow-green. As far as the color of this cultivar is concerned, it is considered to be a breakthrough and a very thrilling event.