March 30, 2021
It’s Peak Magnolia in Kensington. The heats are over; we’re in the finals now: every street in these leafy parts is fielding a tree or two. The finals end just as the wisteria heats are getting going. And meanwhile the cherries are scattering their confetti on pavements and cars.
Magnolia x soulangiana is the people’s choice, and I’ve just stumbled on the fact that the year 2020 was its 200th birthday. In 1820 people were just getting excited about two recent imports from the Far East: Magnolia denudata (because its white flowers appear on naked branches) came from China, and Magnolia liliiflora from Japan. ‘Liliiflora’ is a bit fanciful; magnolia flowers are more like tulips.
It was a retired Napoleonic officer who thought of crossing them to produce a hybrid. Etienne Sanlange-Bodin had a role in the Empress Josephine’s garden at Malmaison before he retired to a village not far from Fontainebleau to start a nursery. The hybrid was a triumph, combining the white of M. denudata with the purple of M.liliiflora in all sorts of interesting ways and adding the vigour that often comes with hybrids.
There must be twenty variants in cultivation today, from the customary pinky purple one you see everywhere, with its fleshy cups of flowers, to a pure white (‘Brozonii’ is a beauty) through pale blushes with various darker veins or stripes to dark purple and even nearly red.
The magnolia collection at Kew is at its peak just now, too. It started a good month ago with the tall M.campbelli, the pride of Cornish gardens so often nipped in its prime by untimely frost. Fifty feet of bright pink against a blue sky draws the crowds. Kew’s own cultivar, M. Kewensis, is a big stout tree by magnolia standards, but my own favourite is a stately white M. kobus labelled ‘Borealis’ – though I’m not sure why. ‘Borealis’ means northern. For some reason icy white appeals to me more than lingerie colours.