Using Magnolias for Health

These ancient symbols of grace and strength pre-date honeybees, and their bark has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Photo by Adobe Stock/mariarom

I passed a magnolia tree almost daily when I was in college, just outside the building where many of my classes at Ohio Wesleyan University were held. My favorite time of year was when its large, cream-colored flowers filled the air with their lemon-rose scent and seemed to light up the lawn with an ethereal glow. That particular magnolia was a sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). Its leathery leaves were glossy-green on one side and silver on the other. In a landscape of native trees, I dismissed it as an obvious transplant because of its tropical appearance. I’d attributed its ability to live in a temperate climate to extra care by a dedicated grounds crew and weather protection from large campus buildings. It never occurred to me to get to know the magnolia any better, because I couldn’t plant it in my own yard … or so I thought.

In the American South, magnolias are undeniably a symbol of culture, strength, and beauty. When I looked more deeply into magnolia cultivation and history, I was surprised to find that I could’ve been enjoying a deeper relationship with this fascinating tree all along.

A Tree of Mystery

Any time I research a plant, I first look into its mythology. Across different cultural regions, the magnolia flower consistently represented dignity, strength, nobility, and feminine beauty. But origin stories were scarce. This puzzled me, as typically, plants with a long history of medicinal use carry a number of stories that pass on cultural memories. If such stories exist about magnolias, they’re most likely written in Chinese, and are sadly unavailable to me.

Though I couldn’t sniff out its mythology, the magnolia certainly doesn’t lack for history. The magnolia family has been found in the fossil record long before humans. In fact, magnolias were present even before honeybees. Every member of the Magnoliaceae family bears a prehistoric form of blossom that distinguishes them from the rest of the flowering plants on our planet. Magnolia flower parts are arranged in a cone, rather than in rings, and their sepals and petals aren’t differentiated from one another, remaining fused into what botanists call “tepals.” All parts of the flower are tough and plainly laid out.

Beetle Beneficiaries

Flowers vary in color, texture, scent, and structure, depending on the pollinators they’re meant to attract. While many ancient plants have outlived their animal partners, magnolia pollinators haven’t died out, and so magnolias have never had to alter their flower structure to survive. Before bees appear in the fossil record, there are ample populations of beetles. Many resources call beetles “dumb” pollinators. The epithet makes me giggle every time I think of it; essentially, while honeybees look for colors, tight passageways, and landing strips, beetles simply trundle around on flat petals, gathering readily available pollen. In addition, there’s an implication that magnolia flowers had to be tough to withstand the beetle sometimes eating the flower it’s supposed to be pollinating.



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