Election Section

Magnolias Look Past Old South to Dawn of Flowers

By RON SULLIVAN Special to the Planet
Tuesday June 08, 2004

The young Southern magnolias (or “bull bays”) strung along Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, from mid-Berkeley through its long run into Oakland, were planted along with flowering locusts to fill empty spots and dress up the street when its name was changed from Grove Street. The idea was good, but some of the trees are clearly struggling. The life of a street tree is a hard one, and they, like most of the world’s creatures, are most vulnerable when they’re small and spindly. A lot of the damage I see is clearly just human boorishness, supplemented by our sometimes sloppy use of motor vehicles. 

Nevertheless, some are bravely starting to bloom. The flowers — for which the tree’s named: Magnolia grandiflora — are almost comically huge on such coltish youngsters, though they’re in scale with the big leathery leaves. They’re fairly substantial themselves, and fragrant, though it’s hard to get much of that from a tree blooming in the exhaust and wind of a busy street. On a senior tree, they present a graceful spectacle, especially if the tree has had room to expand into its natural symmetry. They contrast nicely with the glossy deep green upper surfaces and velvety brown undersides of the leaves. 

Those leaves are so heavy and dense that if you’re near a tree that’s dropping some onto the pavement, you can hear them crash. It’s disconcerting until you figure out what you’re listening to. Unlike some of its congeners, grandiflora never drops them all at once, which I guess is fortunate, as that would make autumn a deafening season. I’ve found them dried and gilded for ornaments; they last for years if you don’t bash them around, and then what happens is that the gilding peels off. In one of his books about walking around Japan, Alan Booth tells of eating a meal including vegetables in miso, grilled at the table on a dried magnolia leaf. He doesn’t specify which magnolia species but I’d imagine grandiflora would be best suited. 

The tree’s favorite living conditions involve nice deep rich loamy streamside soils with decent drainage, but it’s obviously adaptable, both to drought and to the poor drainage typical here. They’re native to forests of the southeastern U.S. like the liquidambars they share the street with, but as a family they make the liquidambars look like parvenus. 

The Magnolia genus is one of seven in the family Magnoliaceae, of the order Magnoliales, class Magnoliopsida, division Magnoliophyta of the plant kingdom. This sounds like being a Carroll of Carrolton in Carroll County, and with good reason. The family is among the oldest of flowering plants. Their fossils are found in really old strata, and their structures show features regarded as “primitive—that conical arrangement of sex organs in the middle of the blossom, for example, and the relatively undifferentiated banners around them, which are called tepals rather than distinct petals and sepals. 

The distribution of magnolias and their near relatives is so odd it can be explained only by continental drift. There are representatives in Asia; some of the most beautiful hail from the Himalayas and thereabouts. Then there’s a spate of them in southern North America, and nothing in between. There’s a whole suite of plant species with that odd pattern, including ginseng, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and mayapple, and they have animal companions like alligators, hellbenders, and paddlefish. 

We used to have native magnolias here, in the Eocene when “here” was a lot different, a bit warmer and a lot wetter all year. We had swamp cypress and tupelo too, as the Southeast has now, and dawn redwood, like China. Well, we didn’t have “we,” as we hadn’t evolved yet, let alone made the three-quarters-of-the-world trek from Africa. There are a few dawn redwoods planted in Berkeley, on the UC campus and some public places (there’s one by the tennis courts at MLK and Russell) and private gardens. 

Now that we’re here, arriving in our variously hued waves, we seem to be arranging several sorts of Old Home Week reunions: the liquidambars with the magnolias of the contemporary Southeast, and the magnolias and dawn redwoods that coexisted here in the distant past. I hope they’re finding the venue congenial.Ã