Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: Michelia: A Touch of the Himalayas in Berkeley

By Joe Eaton
Tuesday March 13, 2007

Most of Ron’s columns have featured street trees. I’m making an exception for Michelia doltsopa; the few specimens we know about are in private gardens and storefront planters. I would have passed off the one on our street as some odd magnolia, but she recognized it for what it was. One clue: the flowers are borne among the leaves rather than at the ends of the branches.  

The accompanying photograph, taken after a long siege of rain, doesn’t really do the tree justice. At its peak, the white flowers glow against the leathery dark-green leaves. Frank Kingdon-Ward, the celebrated plant hunter who saw M. doltsopa in bloom in the Adung River valley near the Tibetan-Burmese frontier, wrote: “Its oyster-white shallow cups have a nacreous gleam, and it is a more beautiful tree than any magnolia, except perhaps the peerless Magnolia campbelli.” And this is coming from a man who knew his magnolias. The flowers are also fragrant. 

Kingdon-Ward wasn’t the first to come upon this tree, which grows wild through the Eastern Himalayas, from Nepal to India’s North East Frontier Area. That honor goes to Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, an earlier botanical explorer who may have been the first western scientist in Nepal, in 1802-03, with a diplomatic mission led by a Captain Knox. He gave the type locality for M. doltsopa as Narainhetty or Narayan Hetti, near Kathmandu. His Account of the Kingdom of Nepal also mentions other trees “hitherto unnoticed by botanists.” 

Trained in medicine in Scotland, Buchanan-Hamilton was surgeon to the British governor-general in Calcutta, somehow finding time also to organize a zoo and catalogue the fish of the Ganges. In addition to Nepal, he made plant-collecting forays all over India before settling down to run the Calcutta botanical garden in 1814.  

You have to hand it to those Indiana Joneses of botany. Prospecting for plants on the borderlands of China and India could be a dicey business. There were precipitous mountain trails and steamy leech-infested lowlands, endemic diseases, and local folk who had never seen a westerner and were none too happy to meet their first. Neither were the dogs, the large and surly Tibetan mastiffs.  

The explorers left behind some great books—many of Kingdon-Ward’s travelogues are still in print—and enriched our gardens with a bounty of rhododendrons, primroses, poppies, maples, and more. Michelia doltsopa is a standout among them. In the wild, it reaches a height of 90 feet and is harvested for its timber. “For carpenter’s work a preference is given to the Champa or Michelia, which is certainly a good kind of timber,” wrote Buchanan-Hamilton. Cultivated specimens are much shorter, 25 to 30 feet. Growth habit can be bushy or narrow and upright; older trees have broader crowns. Michelias in general prefer full sun or partial shade and well-drained, humus-rich, neutral-to-acid soil. 

Like their magnolia relatives, Michelias—there are some 50 species—flower in winter. Theirs is a venerable family. Magnolias and their kin have been traced back to the Cretaceous era, 95 million years ago, when the flowering plants were just emerging. Darwin considered the origin of flowering plants “an abominable mystery,” and their history is still murky. It appears, though, that the oldest flowering trees may have been magnolias or something like them. 

Before the advent of bees or butterflies, they were probably pollinated by flies or beetles as many magnolias still are. 

Now found only in East Asia and eastern North America, the magnolia family once had a much wider distribution. Their fossils have turned up in Idaho, England, even Greenland. But the world was warmer then, and climate change—the drying of the American west, the glaciation of Europe—pushed the magnolias into their present refugia. The remnant distribution of the family is paralleled by other plants, including ginseng, and a few animals, notably the alligators, paddlefish, and giant salamanders. We’re lucky to have these beautiful survivors, bringing a touch of the Mesozoic to city streets and yards.  


Photograph by Joe Eaton:  

At its peak, the white flowers of Michelia doltsopa glow against the leathery dark-green leaves.