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Magnolia x soulangeana at Trinity Cathedral, Portland, Oregon, is the result of a happy British-French collaboration. Star magnolias, on the right, were found in Japan and brought to Britain late in the 19th century.

Fifty million years ago, when the tiny horse called eohippus was running about, the scent of magnolias was in the air. They perished in Europe during the Ice Ages, but survived in America and Asia. Three hundred years ago they began returning to Europe due to the enterprise of British explorers.

Toward the end of the 17th century a tree enthusiast by the name of Henry Compton, Bishop of London, selected his missionaries for their ability in spotting unknown plants in America and getting them safely home to his palace garden. John Bannister was just the man for the bishop. In 1688 he found the sweet bay Magnolia virginiana with its deliciously scented flowers, and sent it to London.

In 1703, the magnolia received its botanical name, a tribute to French botanist Pierre Magnol.

Three decades later, in 1732, John Bartram, the son of British settlers in Philadelphia, began collecting tree specimens and seeds and sending them to Peter Collinson in London. Bartram was travelling in Indian country in Pennsylvania when he found “A great hill, cloathed with large Magnolia, 2 ft diameter and 100 feet high.”

I think these were the glistening bull bay magnolia, which soars over 100 feet with glistening dark leaves, a velvet rust underneath, and “heavy, creamy scented flowers”. The bull bays soon arrived in London. They proved happy to grow against south-facing walls, flowering from July to October.

Joseph Banks, who explored the Pacific with Captain Cook, introduced Magnolia denudata (Yulan magnolia) to Britain in 1780. In the nineteenth century, Sir Joseph Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, introduced Magnolia campbellii, which had been sent to him from India. In the first decade of the 20th century, George Forrest and Ernest Henry Wilson went trekking in China, looking for new specimens. They brought back the beautiful deciduous magnolias that I have seen in so many Portland gardens.

Wilson had been told that all the undiscovered plants in China had been found. This pronouncement was rather dramatically disproved when Wilson returned to Britain with about 1500 plants that were previously unknown, including eight species of Magnolia. Forrest collected thousands of plants, too, in particular, the wonderful M. campbellii subsp mollicomata, which towers 150 feet entirely covered with large pink flowers.


After these species of magnolias were introduced, plant breeders began creating beautiful hybrids. The earliest of these hybridizers was a retired French army captain, Etienne Soulange-Bodin. In 1820 the captain crossed the Magnolia denudata brought back by Banks with M. liliiflora, brought to Britain from Japan in 1790 by the third Duke of Portland, to produce Magnolia x soulangeana, the beauty in the photo above.

On a sunny day in early spring, I close my eyes and imagine something like this delicate scent was in the air fifty million years ago.