Magnolia campbellii - the herald of spring

This is a short post dedicated to Magnolia campbelli and to my friend Robert Bradshaw who introduced me to it. It was over dinner last year, one autumn evening that Robert told me about this tree. I was gripped by his fervent excitement about this plant at Gravetye, the garden he worked and trained at, how the flowers were unbelievably pink for this time of year, how the owner was magnetically drawn to it, taking photos of it for hours, how Robinson had cleverly planted it in a dip, so that the tree that can grow to magnificent heights, can be looked down onto and still have its flowers admired, how he cheekily peeled back the petals to reveal the sensual and dramatic middle of the flower (known botanically, drily as the receptacle) to a photographer.

Photo 1: The sensual receptacle of Magnolia campbellii

With this in mind I was eagerly excited when we learnt from some visitors at Wisley that there was an impressive collection of Magnolia campbellii at the Valley Gardens part of the Royal Landscape Parks, only up the road from us. So one sunny afternoon I dragged Robert to see it.

I am working on the Woodland Team at the moment at Wisley. Battleston Hill is nice in spring and has a collection itself of said Magnolia, but many of them are too tall and high up for one to be able to get the full appreciation of them. We had seen some good ones at Kew earlier so we were well primed.

Photo 2: Magnolia campbellii at Battleston Hill.

Personally I am not a landscape gardener but I can appreciate being in a well put together landscape and considering the whole/ related landscape when gardening is important. With wonderful old veteran trees and ancient moss, I could almost imagine roaming by horseback in the Valley Gardens. As often is the case, we were initially sidetracked by a few good specimens, especially a dark pink Magnolia campbellii ssp. mollicomata 'Lanarth', which we wondered if the gardener had to have been in perhaps something of a smutty mood when he planted this bold number. Then we gasped when we saw the tops of what looked like a light pink cloud, and started to gravitate towards it.

Photo 3: Magnolia campbellii at Valley Gardens - the label just said a hybrid.

I'm sure there are many fine specimens of Magnolia campbellii trees, I have never seen the famous champion ones in Cornwall for instance, but these are the largest I have ever seen. There is nothing like when a good magnolia tree is in full bloom. These fleshy flowers in their multitude has an ethereal quality, when it's so ripe that the petals gently fall like snow and its light perfume lifts the air. They give a feeling of having witnessed something special. We looked at it from all angles, from a far, close up, from the side, from below upwards and was surprised to see that some of the flowers were revealing their middles downwards.

Photo 4: Looking up, the light pink Magnolia campbelli hybrid in particular on the right revealing their receptacle downwards.

The last time I felt this magical quality about magnolias was in my pre-horticultural days, when me and my partner Graeme was in Rotterdam, and we stumbled upon one of these old residential areas in the North, where the whole street was lined with Magnolias. It was twilight and the white petals were gently falling and the fragrance was strong.

Based on the Champion Trees in the 'Great Gardens of Cornwall', it is probably timely that I mention this most wonderful tree, as from 2013 it has become the first herald of spring in England. 50 blooms have to be recorded on each tree for spring to be declared, and for the first time in 2015, a survey is done and led by the RHS, asking of gardeners, gardens, people from all over the country to contribute about sightings of Magnolia campbellii in bloom.

Other interesting facts: they're from the Himalayas at 7000 - 11,000 elevation. They use to be a staple tree of the forests there, but their numbers have diminished due to them being harvested for timber, fire wood and making tea boxes!  It can take them over 10 years before they begin to flower and 25 - 30 years before they start setting seed, which are knobbly and peculiar looking.

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