Tuesday, January 29, 2013


A sight that inspires us to believe “if winter comes, spring can’t be far behind” is that of a Japanese magnolia tree in bloom. Here in the South, the blossoms signal the end of winter and hint at an early spring. The blooming tree also tells us that azalea, dogwood, and redbud blooms aren’t far behind.

A tree touted to be the oldest tree known to man – 50 million years old – the Japanese magnolia was introduced to English speaking countries by the Japanese, but it’s actually native to southwest China. The beautiful tree has large, tulip-shaped, purple, pink, and sometimes white flowers that need feeding in late winter. (My backyard tree must have starved at some time or another, or was killed off by frost because it is sans blooms; however, others in the neighborhood are heavy with blossoms).

Some varieties of the Japanese Magnolia, like Verbanica, with its light purple blooms, show good frost tolerance during the time of blooming. The tree loves early morning because at that time the sun’s beams aren’t as strong as those during the afternoon, and the goblet-shaped blooms almost seem to be cupping the soft light to greet the day.

I’ve searched through many plant books and journals, looking for information about how the Japanese magnolia trees got across the pond and introduced into our yards and gardens but haven’t turned up any data yet. I’ve even searched through Haiku poetry volumes, hoping to find an appropriate Haiku about the fragrant, stunning blooms of this tree and find numerous mentions about the plum tree, but no reference to the lavender/purple blooms of the tree that we call Japanese or Saucer magnolia.

Japanese magnolia trees thrive in semi-tropical climates like our Louisiana clime, and we start sending for seed catalogs or moving toward garden centers when we first see the blossoms in late January and early February. On these gray winter days, the trees make a lovely contrast to a lead-colored sky, and I can’t imagine the Chinese or Japanese poets missing an opportunity to write Haiku about these spectacular trees. Actually, I’m inclined to include a Haiku poem in this blog, written by the Japanese poet, Bundo, who does a brushstroke description of the plum tree in Haiku, Seasons of Japanese Poetry edited by Johanna Brownell. Brownell says that the Japanese are riveted by the purity and beauty of nature and have historically expressed this in their Haiku, “through a subtle sense of emotionalism that avoids abstract reasoning and human valorization…”

Most Haiku focuses on a landscape or scene that can be interpreted in many ways, so this Haiku poem by Bundo could be attributed to our southern Japanese magnolia: “A heavy cloud hangs low – /a cloud of blossoms o’er the land, /Pink, like the sunrise glow.” (In my lexicon of definitions, I often refer to this kind of poetry as “snippets”).

P.S. If you have a digestive problem, the bark of the Japanese magnolia tree has been used to treat this malady. My own treatment for a case of dyspepsia: stand and look at a Japanese magnolia tree in bloom for thirty minutes daily.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

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