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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.
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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Plants in the Magnoliaceae family have survived ice ages and continental drift alike. These plants appear to have stayed pretty true to their original form through about 100 million years.
Many magnolia species are native to Asia, where they’re an important ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine. There are more than 200 species in the Magnolia genus; the whitebark magnolia (M. obovata) is most used today in China for patent medicines. Because of its long use there, magnolia has been well-studied. Traditionally, the bark of the tree was used to treat dampness (or sluggishness) and constipation in the digestive tract. It was also recommended for relieving menstrual cramps, bloating, nausea, and indigestion. In some cases, magnolia was a suggested remedy for coughs and asthma. Studies of the bark found that it contains the chemicals honokiol and magnolol, which are believed to be the reason for its effectiveness. Honokiol appears to be a muscle relaxer that’s also five times more effective than some prescriptions at alleviating anxiety, with no apparent side effects. Magnolol shows anti-allergic and anti-asthmatic activity, and also appears to support the body’s natural production of adrenal steroids. This trait means that magnolia bark may also act as an effective anti-inflammatory, and support weight loss, blood sugar control, and brain health.
Here in North America, there isn’t much of a market for magnolia bark. Almost all of the bark in the herb market is cultivated in the Zhejiang province of China, where it’s known as hou pu. Nearly all of the demand is domestic, with only small amounts of bark exported to the United States, specifically for immigrant populations who still use the more than 200 patent medicines that rely on magnolia. Most herbal suppliers in the U.S. don’t offer magnolia, even though we have our own supply of the trees.
Bringing Magnolias Home
The U.S. has eight native species of magnolia. The sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana) and the southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) are evergreen within their hardiness Zones — Zones 5 and 7, respectively. The cucumber tree (M. acuminata), umbrella tree (M. tripetala), bigleaf magnolia (M. macrophylla), Ashe magnolia (M. ashei), mountain magnolia (M. fraseri), and pyramid magnolia (M. pyramidata) are all deciduous or semi-deciduous. Almost all native North American magnolias appreciate slightly acidic soil that drains well, though sweetbay magnolia likes a wet, even boggy, environment best. The evergreen species can tolerate full sun, while the deciduous ones tend to prefer living in partial shade.
Magnolias can be rather tough if protected from harsh winter winds and cold. They don’t have many disease problems, but they are food for a lot of wildlife. Of course, feeding native fauna is lovely, but keep in mind that your prize magnolia leaves and stems are likely to be munched on by the likes of deer, tiger swallowtail caterpillars, spicebush caterpillars, and sweetbay silkmoth caterpillars. Many songbirds, mice, quail, and squirrels enjoy the fruit as well. M. virginiana’s fleshy roots, which are as aromatic as the rest of the plant, have even been used to bait beaver traps.
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The best way to plant a magnolia in your yard is to get one from a nursery or start cuttings. You can grow magnolias from seeds, but the flowers, which tend to be the main attraction for gardeners, may not appear for 10 years. Magnolia trees have a system of spreading roots, so if you’re planting a nursery tree, dig a broader, shallower hole than you might for other species. The trees can be very long-lived, and will spread their roots far beyond their canopies, which makes moving an established magnolia challenging at best.
In both Asia and the Americas, the magnolia has a prominent place in the apothecary. The genus offers food and shelter to wildlife — and to humans — but while we’ve been infatuated with the cultivated individuals in our gardens, their wild siblings have quietly become endangered. Perhaps, in addition to growing, eating, and sharing the plants, we should start telling more stories about the historical and modern uses of the magnolia, to help future generations care for these remarkable, ancient plants.
Dawn Combs, M.A. ethnobotanist, is co-owner of the award-winning family herb farm Mockingbird Meadows and formulator of its Soda Pharm syrups. She’s the author of Sweet Remedies, Conceiving Healthy Babies, and Heal Local.