The start of the New Year in San Francisco offers a chance to be tickled pink by one of the city’s most breathtaking natural marvels as nearly 100 magnolias at San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park burst into bloom. Velvety silver buds on the often bare branches of these elegant trees, many rare and historic, open into dazzling pink, magenta, and white flowers, filling the wintery Garden with dramatic splashes of color and sweetly fragrant scents.
The annual floral spectacle, with trees reaching 80 feet, is at its peak this year from mid-January through March, and visitors to the Garden can take advantage of free Magnolia Walk maps, docent-led tours, special signage, a magnolia mobile app, and more, as well as unique classes and activities, including special Magnolias by Moonlight tours, to celebrate and learn more about these magnificent magnolias.
San Francisco Botanical Garden is home to the most significant magnolia collection for conservation purposes outside China, where the majority of species originated*. Its current collection includes 44 species, 42 cultivars and 16 hybrids or varieties, including many important specimens from Asia.
This unique and long-standing collection began in 1939 with Eric Walther, who planted the very first magnolia in the Garden and continued to introduce species and cultivars throughout his tenure as the first Garden Director. One of the most famous species he planted was the cup and saucer magnolia, or Magnolia campbellii, the first of its kind to bloom in the United States in 1940, attracting huge crowds of excited and curious visitors who stood in long lines to see the magnificent large pink blossoms of this lovely magnolia that still stands in the Garden today. More than a dozen other M. campbellii can now also be found throughout the Garden.
“A 50-foot tree with thousands of large pink flowers held upright against a blue sky is a sight one will remember for the rest of one's lifetime,” says Don Mahoney, the Garden’s Curator Emeritus. “Magnolias are absolutely the signature flower of San Francisco Botanical Garden. The city has an ideal climate to support them, so we have been able to cultivate one of the world’s most important magnolia collections—critical for their conservation and survival.
The Magnolia family - Magnoliaceae, named for botanist Pierre Magnol in 1748 – is considered by paleobotanists to be one of the earliest flowering plant families. Magnolia fossils date back nearly 100 million years to the time of the dinosaurs. The flowers are pollinated by beetles since bees had not yet evolved at that time. Survivors of several ice ages, magnolias thrived in the protected mountains of southern China, the southern United States, southern Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Eighty percent of the more than 247 species occur in Asia.
Magnolia campbellii 'Strybing White'. Photo by Saxon Holt.