Saving a Magnolia (and our garden heritage)

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Saving a Magnolia (and our garden heritage)

Categories: Blog, Garden Guru, Newsworthy, Uncategorized

We will have staff from Seed Savers Exchange at Powell Gardens on Saturday to prepare you on how to save heirloom vegetable seeds. Seed Savers’ mission includes to save North America’s diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations AND educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.  We at Powell Gardens couldn’t agree more but sometimes saving an heirloom plant requires a different path. Here’s a story of how Powell Gardens saved a unique local magnolia tree.

I spotted this magnolia while driving around the historic neighborhoods of nearby Lexington, Missouri. The narrow-tepaled (magnolias have undifferentiated petals and sepals called “tepals”) flowers were distinctive. The tree was as old as the neighborhood with gnarly branches. There was a for sale sign in front of the modest home behind it. I know most magnolia species and cultivars and this tree was different from any I had seen. (Part of the reason I like to explore historic neighborhoods is because they often have historic and even UNIQUE plants, planted at a time before  today’s universal cloning of plants.) Old local nurseries and even old-time gardeners often grew plants from seed so each plant was unique.

Here’s an above view of the heirloom magnolia flower.

I thought I would like to get permission to get cuttings of the unique magnolia and wrote down its address. The next time I drove by the tree was GONE! I must say the tree was old and gnarly so the home sellers may have chosen to remove it and improve the curb appeal of the home, but for whatever reason I was sad the unique magnolia was lost.

A couple of months later I just happened to drive by again and noticed sprouts were growing up from the tree’s stump. WHEW!  Our propagator, Marie Frye, went to the house and asked permission to take some cuttings of the sprouts and the new owners said yes!  Marie took cuttings of the sprouts and brought them to our greenhouses.

The cuttings rooted well and we actually sold some of them at our plant sale as ‘Lexington’ Magnolias. We did plant one in the garden just south of the Visitor Center where it is doing well today as you can see in the above picture.  I believe this plant is a species type Lily Magnolia or Mulan (the Chinese name which translates woody orchid) Magnolia liliiflora. The parent tree of this plant is gone from Lexington but we have preserved its uniqueness at Powell Gardens.

The Lily Magnolia is one of the parents of the popular hybrid Saucer or Tulip Magnolias as well as the Little Girl hybrid Magnolias seen around the region. It’s a prime example of saving an ornamental plant’s genetic and cultural diversity. This magnolia is from a plant that obviously has withstood the test of time in our climate and it blooms well as a very small plant. It is now part of our renowned collection of magnolias at Powell Gardens.

Whether for food or beauty, we need to save the genetic diversity of our plants. Whether they possess the special genetics to weather unforeseen environmental stresses or disease outbreaks; it is always a good insurance policy to bank on their diversity. I think of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold’s statement: the first step in intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.

Happy Earth Day to all and come to Powell Gardens and learn more about seed saving and see our rescued heirloom magnolia.