One of the big flowers that appears in early Spring is the common magnolia (Magnolia spp.). Its flower buds come first even when the tree doesn’t produce leaves yet. After the Winter the magnolia tree is still thin and looks weak, but it produces a lot of sweet smell, beautiful flowers. And suddenly, within a few days the flowers will be gone and then replaced by the leaf buds.
Magnolia is the large genus of about 300 flowering plant species in the family Magnoliaceae. It is named after Pierre Magnol (1638-1715) professor of botany and former director of Royal Botanic Garden of Montpellier, France. The strategy of this common magnolia tree must have a meaning.
Magnolia is an ancient genus, appearing before bees evolved. The flowers are theorized to have evolved to encourage pollination by beetles in early Spring. To avoid damage from pollinating beetles, the carpe (pistil)l or female reproduction part of Magnolia flowers are extremely tough. Fossilized specimens of Magnolia acuminata have been found dating 20 million years ago, and fossils of plant identically belonging to Magnoliaceae family date back to 95 million years ago.
Another aspect of Magnolia considered to represent an ancestral state is the flower bud. Its flower bud is enclosed in a bract or specialized leaf in association with a reproductive structure called tepals rather than sepals and petals. This tepal is heavy duty and very thick so the large insects such as beetles and small birds can land freely to do pollination.
The southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) has a different strategy. Its flowers will appear in the warm Summer after the tree produces a lot of leaves. The flowers are big with pure white color and smell very sweet and fresh. Sure, they will invite many pollinators including beetles and bumble bees, and many small birds, even small mammals.
The photos above is the young southern magnolia tree (about 5 years old and 3 meters high) with flower buds, open flowers, and leaves of the southern Magnolia in Burnaby, British Columbia last Summer. The photo can be zoomed to see details. Permission is needed for the reproduction of this photo.
The southern magnolia tree has longer-lasting flowers for over a week, even their flower stalks or spikes and seeds can last on the tree for more than four seasons. The most interesting thing, the open shape of their “fruits” is very similar to the cone of a primitive gymnosperm’s evergreen trees.
The goal of the Magnolia plant is to be pollinated to produce seeds for the new generation, so the tree can live long and the species can continue to survive. The same kind of tree in Jardin des Plantes de Nantes, France can survive over 220 years. In Fuxing Park, Shanghai, the tree can reach up to 20 meters high. In fact, the southern Magnolia flower, which is called a white jade, is the city flower of Shanghai.
It seems the different strategy of Magnolia trees, whether the flower or the leaf comes first or not, don’t have any impact on the age of the individual tree which is easy to reach 100 years old. As far as the pollinators first come first serve because of the awesome smell and their happy landing on the flowers. It’s amazing that a magnolia tree accumulates a lot of sugar in its flowers and the tree can live long.