Writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings shared my mother’s affinity for the species, exulting in the beauty of the magnolia tree that grew in the orange grove next to her one-story wooden cottage in North Florida.
“There is no such thing in the world as an ugly tree, but the magnolia grandiflora has a unique perfection,” she wrote in “Cross Creek,” her 1942 collection of essays about her rural home. “The tree is beautiful the year around.”
Earlier Florida visitors agreed with her view. William Bartram, a Quaker naturalist from Pennsylvania who wandered through the area in 1774, described the trees as “the glorious pyramidal magnolia grandiflora” and noted their “large, beautiful and expansive white fragrant blossoms, and great heavy cones on slender procumbent branches.”
Bartram, on a plant-collecting trip for a wealthy British benefactor, saw many other varieties of magnolia along a path that ultimately would wind through the entire southeast.
John Muir, who traveled across North Central Florida on foot in 1867, also admired the southern magnolia.
John Muir, who as a young man mostly walked from Indiana to Florida in 1867 collecting botanical specimens, also admired the tree. By the time he reached southern Georgia, he noted the “Magnolia grandiflora becoming common. A magnificent tree in fruit and foliage as well in flower,” he wrote in his journal.
In the coming months, Muir would find his way to California where he delighted in the Sierra Nevada mountains and became a noted writer and environmental activist.
My environmental literature students at Rollins College enjoy Muir’s tale of climbing to the top of a 100-foot Douglas Spruce where he spent hours looking at the scenery as a storm hit. In his 1894 essay “A Wind-Storm in the Forests,” Muir wrote:
"We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much."
The United States has eight native magnolia species that range up to 80 feet in height. Two are evergreen, including the Magnolia grandiflora, commonly known as the southern magnolia.
Anne Balogh of the “Garden Design” website reports some interesting magnolia facts: that the trees are among the earliest known flowering plants, their fossils date back more than 100 million years, they are pollinated by beetles, and that the “oldest trees on the grounds of the White House are two southern magnolias planted between 1829 and 1837 by Andrew Jackson…in memory of his wife, Rachel, who died shortly after he won the election.”
Rawlings was a transplant to Florida, arriving in 1928 from Rochester, New York.
When her southern magnolia bloomed in April and May, the flowers were “sometimes eight or ten inches across, and the perfume is a delirious thing on the spring air, I would not trade one tree for a conservatory filled with orchids,” she wrote.
Rawlings carefully cut blooms and placed them in water to adorn her wooden Cracker-style farmhouse.
When the flowering was done, she missed them so much that she had her artist friend Robert Camp, of Ocala, paint them on a metal tray kept in her living room. He didn’t want to paint the tray, fearing that it might rust, but she persisted.
“Now I have them, imperishable at least for my lifetime, with the inexplicable added loveliness that true art gives to reality.”
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings asked artist Robert Camp to paint magnolias on a metal tray so she could enjoy the blooms throughout the year.
Rawlings was a transplant to Florida, coming in 1928 from Rochester, New York. She and her husband Charles planned to become full-time writers in this exotic setting, living off the bounty of their orange grove. It was a strange, new world for her but one she immediately embraced; Charles only lasted a few years.
“When I came to the Creek, and knew the old grove and farmhouse at once as home, there was some terror, such as one feels in the first recognition of a human love, for the joining of person to place, as of person to person, is a commitment to shared sorrow, even as to shared joy.”
And in her first days in her new home, Rawlings found the magnolia to be her joy, her spiritual nourishment, capable of sustaining her through the darkest of times.
“I do not know the irreducible minimum of happiness for any other spirit than my own. It is impossible to be certain even of mine," she wrote. "Yet I believe that I know my tangible desideratum. It is a tree-top against a patch of sky. If I should lie crippled or long ill, or should have the quite conceivable misfortune to be clapped in jail, I could survive, I think, given this one token of the physical world. I know that I lived on one in my first days at the Creek.”
A view of a tree as the last tonic of hope, of beauty. Others have felt the same way.