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British Life

The Explorers &
the Magnolias

White magnolia petals against a dark ground

Magnolias in the Arboretum, Portland, Oregon

Photo: David Abbott

Fifty million years ago

When the tiny horse called eohippus was running about, the scent of magnolias was in the air. They perished in Europe during the Ice Ages, but survived in America and Asia.

Millennia passed. Then, three hundred years ago, magnolias began returning to Britain due to the enterprise of British explorers.

Toward the end of the 17th century a tree enthusiast by the name of Henry Compton, Bishop of London, selected his missionaries for their ability in spotting unknown plants in America and getting them safely home to his palace garden. John Bannister was just the man for the bishop.

Discoveries in America

In 1688 Bannister found the sweet bay Magnolia virginiana with its deliciously scented flowers, and sent it to London. In 1703, the magnolia received its botanical name, a tribute to French botanist Pierre Magnol.

Three decades later, in 1732, John Bartram began collecting tree specimens and seeds and sending them to Peter Collinson in London. The son of British settlers who lived in Philadelphia, John Bartram loved the wilderness. He was travelling in Indian country in Pennsylvania when he found “A great hill, cloathed with large Magnolia, 2 ft diameter and 100 feet high.”

Scholars think these were the glistening bull bay magnolia, which soars over 100 feet with glistening dark leaves, a velvet rust underneath, and “heavy, creamy scented flowers”. Other plantsmen sent the bull bays to London, and they took to English weather with aplomb. They proved happy to grow against south-facing walls, flowering from July to October.

Banking on Banks

Joseph Banks was twenty-five when he joined Lt. (later Captain) Cook on HM Bark Endeavour, a ship designed to handle reef-strewn oceans and archipelagos. They rounded Cape Horn, and arrived in Tahiti in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun as part of the Royal Society's scientific effort to establish planetary distances. By then Banks was already filling the ship with his South American plant specimens.

Once Tahiti had been reached, Cook opened his sealed orders, and learned they were to sail south, to search for the continent of Terra Australis. They reached New Zealand, and sailed along the east coast of Australia. Banks was ecstatic. They had found the southern continent and thousands of plants he had never seen before, and since the ship required a long layover for repairs, he had time to collect buckets of them

Ten years later, when he was back in Britain, Banks would begin dispatching explorers and botanists to all corners of the globe. Botanical specimens would pour into the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which he now headed. The English Garden, Part 2, describes a few of those horticultural adventurers. As a result he was able to introduce Magnolia denudata (the Yulan magnolia) to Britain in 1780.

White bloom of Magnolia denudata

Sweet-scented snow-white flower of the lily tree, Magnolia denudata (the Yulan magnolia)

Wilson in China; surviving an avalanche

In the nineteenth century, Sir Joseph Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, introduced Magnolia campbellii, which had been sent to him from India. In the first decade of the 20th century, Ernest Henry 'Chinese' Wilson went trekking in China, looking for new specimens. Wilson had been told that all the undiscovered plants in China had been found. This pronouncement was rather dramatically disproved.

Wilson was an intrepid explorer, hiking into remote and unmapped mountain valleys during the first decades of the 19th century. He returned to Britain with about 1500 plants that were previously unknown, including eight species of Magnolia.

Magnolia wilsonii

Magnolia wilsonii . Preserving cuttings and seeds and getting them unspoiled to Britain was quite the trick.

Image: free spins no deposit win real moneyWikimedia Commons

Wilson would later explore Japan, Korea, Formosa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Central and South America and East Africa. He survived an avalanche in China that crushed his leg (he set it with a leg from his camera tripod) and triumphantly returned with the Lily Regale.

Another great plant hunter funded by British nurseries, was George Forrest, who collected thousands of plants in the 20th century. He brought back the wonderful M. campbellii subsp mollicomata, which towers up to 150 feet entirely covered with large pink flowers. Brits were simply passionate about discovering and growing new plants - and selling them, too.


Magnolia x soulangeana, the child of Joseph Banks, the Duke of Portland, various explorers and Etienne Soulange-Bodin, grows in a cathedral garden in Portland, Oregon.

After these species of magnolias were planted in Britain, breeders began creating beautiful hybrids. The earliest of these hybridizers was a retired French army captain, Etienne Soulange-Bodin. In 1820 the captain crossed the Magnolia denudata brought back by explorers working for Banks with M. liliiflora, brought to Britain from Japan in 1790 by the third Duke of Portland. The result is the beauty in the photo above.

Early in spring you can imagine something like their delicate scent was in the air fifty million years ago.

English bulldog puppy

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass