Living dangerously Posted on March 24, 2014

Whether last night’s frost, the first of the spring, did for the magnolias at Kew I don’t yet know, but I’m glad I went to see them last week. A sense of urgency, the feeling that the sunnier the weather, the greater the danger that the flowers will be clobbered, is what makes them so poignant. To expose so much bare flesh so early in the year is provocative.

The trees around are still wintry bare, buds swelling perhaps, or catkins, or showing a few tentative little leaves. Magnolias get their kit off. The star of the show last week was Magnolia kobus var. borealis, as its label describes it. If the label department were to keep up with shifting taxonomic opinion on every plant it could be a costly business. The status of kobus as a species, the legitimacy of the name (one botanist pointed out that the Japanese name is Kobushi), its relationship with M. stellata, M. salicifolia and M. x loebneri have all been disputed – and not always in the friendly spirit you would hope it would inspire.

Nor is it clear, at least to me, how the form labelled var. borealis fits in – except in being big and incredibly beautiful. Does it come from further north, as ‘borealis’ implies? There will be someone at Kew who knows. There might even be someone who remembers planting it and waiting, maybe twenty years, for it to flower.

I only hope the flowers weren’t fried by the frost last night.

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