Sandy’s Garden ... Magnolia

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Let me take you back many years ago.

Shortly after my wife and I spent all the money we could raise and more than we would have liked to borrow on the house which has been our home ever since, we were faced with the problem of what to plant in a garden in which the builders had provided slabbed paths and some grass, front and rear, but nothing else. Our financial resources being under severe strain, we had no option but to buy plants cheaply; and the late, lamented Woolworths came to our aid with a selection of small trees and shrubs at, if I remember correctly, 2/11 each. If, gentle reader, you do not know what 2/11 means, it is a long-outdated way of writing down the price of two shillings and eleven pence, dating back to the days when there were twelve pence in one shilling and twenty shillings in one pound. All these years ago, 2/11 … pronounced two-and-eleven … would have translated into fourteen-and-a-half new pence – ‘new’ to differentiate the new pennies from the old pennies in our currency: however, inflation has made this translation meaningless and the best calculation I can make is that the 2015 equivalent would be £4.68.

Whatever, one of our cheap trees was a tiny magnolia sapling, if, indeed, it was large enough to be called a sapling. It was so small that, five springs following the summer of its being planted, we were able to protect its very first buds from frost with a large bin bag, which fitted comfortably over the still small shrub. But it was a survivor if ever there was one; and now it is a substantial tree, sufficiently large to need some slight judicious pruning, a task I am reluctant to undertake for what I hope are understandable sentimental reasons.

But the magnolia tree has a well-merited place in plant history as well as a purely local … but equally well-merited … place in my garden; for the magnolia was among the very first plants on earth to reproduce using flowers pollinated by insects. Pre-dating the appearance of the first bees on Earth, the flowers are thought to have evolved to encourage pollination by beetles. Fossil dating techniques have established that magnolias were around at least 20 million years ago; and there is scientific evidence to suggest that magnolia-like shrubs and trees have grown on Earth for a staggering 90 million years! The plant’s common name … magnolia … is exactly the same name as its proper botanical name … Magnolia … named after Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), the doctor to Louis XIV of France and Professor of Botany at the University of Montpellier. The species in our garden is deciduous … there are evergreen varieties … and carries beautiful, white, waxy-looking flowers in the spring before the leaves emerge – an unusual characteristic, for the leaves appear before the flowers in the vast majority of plants.

It has very slowly grown into a tree some three metres high … ten feet in old money … and should, after 45 years, have reached its full height, although it is still spreading its branches. It enjoys its southerly aspect with shelter from the bitter north and north-east winds of a Scottish winter – and summer, for that matter! I don’t know for certain what variety it is: but, perhaps surprisingly given its cheapness, it is not Magnolia grandiflora … the large-flowered magnolia … which is native to the United States and is the most common variety found in the United Kingdom. I think it is most probably Magnolia stellata … the magnolia with star-like flowers … which is originally from Japan. Whatever variety it is, it is fully hardy and has survived the worst that severe Scottish winters can throw at it, whereas Magnolia grandiflora is susceptible to frost where the temperature drops below -5°C (23°F). causing damage to the flowers in spring and to the evergreen foliage in autumn.