Magnolia doltsopa. Photo by James Gaither.
Thanks to the adventuresome spirits of British botanists in the 19th century, many botanical treasures like Sweet Michelia, were discovered in the arc of the Himalayas that stretches from China to Kashmir. Enduring elevations from 5000 to 9000 feet in mountainous terrain, capricious weather and suspicious villagers, the botanists brought back seeds and cuttings from unusual trees and other plants never before collected. Back in England, they were planted and nurtured at Kew Gardens. One of these explorers was Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a Scottish physician and botanist, who discovered Sweet Michelia in Nepal, and officially named it in 1817. Caerhays Castle in Cornwall was the first place outside of China to display it in bloom in 1933.
SFBG has mature specimens in the garden located in the Mesoamerican Cloud Forest, Southeast Asian Cloud Forest and the Moon Viewing Garden with a range of blooming periods. While most are evergreen, there is one clone in the Mesoamerican Cloud Forest off of the main lawn that is deciduous in cold winters.
Sweet Michelia is different from other magnolias in that its flowers arise in the axils of the leaves along the stems, rather than at the end of the branches. The petal-like tepals are structurally different from petals and reveal, among other differences, the primitive quality of the Magnolia family. Magnolias date back millions of years to the time of the dinosaurs, a time before bees and butterflies were present. Beetles were the primitive pollinators of Magnolias. The creamy white, fragrant three-inch tepals can number 12 to 16 per flower, and cover the tree when in full bloom. The evergreen leaves are three to seven inches long with a downy underside.
Today over 200 species of the Magnolia can be found in Japan, China, Malaysia, Mexico and the eastern United States. Fossils tell us that they once grew all over the northern hemisphere before the ice age. Magnolias thrive in cold winters and wet springs. San Francisco's chilly fog and temperate ocean climate seem to provide just what they need.
||Sun or partial shade; prefers deep, rich, well-drained soil and a location sheltered from wind.
||Late winter – spring; furry brown flower buds open to fragrant creamy white flowers.
||Grows to 25 feet as a street tree in San Francisco; older trees reach 50 feet at SFBG
||Relatively hardy, these trees can be found up and down the west coast, easily surviving temperatures in the low teens. The species is quite variable and smaller forms make perfect street trees. Many street trees in adjacent neighborhoods have been grown from seed collected at the garden; after forty years they are only 15 feet tall and are prolific bloomers.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS:
Text by Kathy McNeil. Photos by Joanne Taylor, Mona Bourell and James Gaither. Profile by Mona Bourell
Magnolia doltsopa is located in the Mesoamerican Cloud Forest (Beds 24C, 26D), Moon Viewing Garden (Bed 51A), Ancient Plant Garden (Bed 68A, 68E), Rhododendron Garden (Bed 71A), Southeast Asian Cloud Forest (Bed 78B, 78K).
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