Magnolias In The Park

May 7, 2018

Sugar magnolia, blossoms blooming, head’s all empty and I don’t care

Along Martin Luther King Boulevard in Lincoln Park, opposite the statue of the great man, is a row of unusual looking short trees, more like large neatly trimmed bushes.  Most of the time they are not very interesting to look at, just some decorative shrubbery with twisted branches planted the same distance apart.  However, for a short time in early spring these nondescript things bloom into a riot of magnificent flowers, but they do so only during years when conditions are just right.

This just happened to be one of those years.  For a very brief time, maybe ten days at most, two varieties of these magnolias put out crowds of these incredible flowers all over the trees, both a completely white variety of flower and another with flowers that are also white but streaked with a pinkish red.  Then the petals fall with the first serious rainstorm and lay on the ground in a circle around each tree, turning brown.

Magnolias In Bloom Along MLK Boulevard In Lincoln Park Magnolias In Bloom Along MLK Boulevard In Lincoln Park

Magnolias are not native to this part of the world, which is why they seem unusual and that’s why we don’t get to experience a full bloom from them every year.  This is a more southerly species of plant that tries to be the first flowering plant to bloom at the first bit of warm weather, but has never developed strategies for dealing with sudden cold snaps like most of our native flowers do.  So with a few sunny warm days in April the magnolia buds will pop out and begin to open, but if that is followed by one night of below freezing temperature those flowers will wither before they can open.

Young Lady Who Was Walking Home From School Quietly Experiencing The Magnolia Bloom From Inside Young Lady Who Was Walking Home From School Quietly Experiencing The Magnolia Bloom From Inside

Some years ago we had an unusually hot three days in April when the magnolias blossomed tremendously, an epic year.  Late in the third day I said to myself, tomorrow morning I’m going to photograph those flowers before they fall.  But when night came the temperatures plunged down into the mid 20s F, a total freeze across the entire region that reportedly devastated the NY State apple crop for that year.

The next morning I went out with my camera and saw that every single one of those magnolia flowers had tuned brown.  All the trees wore a sad and terrible looking canopy of dead flowers, not a single blossom had survived.  It was stunning to look at, beautiful in a strange sort of way, but as the flowers did not drop like they were supposed to and hung on to the branches a long time and, well, made people sad to look at them.

Magnolias Seen From The Walkway Magnolias Seen From The Walkway

So having learned my lesson I rushed outside this year as the flowers were at their peak, especially since the weather service was predicting heavy wind and rain for that night.  I knew I had to catch the ephemeral bloom before many of the petals got torn off by the weather.  But all the dire weather predictions from this last week or so have mostly turned out to be bogus, so the trees have kept their magnificence intact.

I Think This Is Called Magnolia Virginiana, already playing out. I Think This Is Called Magnolia Virginiana, already playing out.

The two different colors of flowers represent different varieties of Magnolia.  I think that the ones with white flowers are Sweetbay Magnolias, or Virginiana, which is native to the southeastern US but can be found growing naturally as far north as southern New Jersey.  These white ones bloomed first, and by the time I’d gotten out there with my camera the flowers were already playing out and fruiting, that is, forming seed pods. 

These seedpods make me wonder what kind of early emerging bugs are pollinating these flowers, both male and female flowers occurring on each branch.  I’m reading that beetles usually do the pollinating, but what kind around here is a mystery.  Can’t say I’ve seen too many bugs on these flowers since the flowers emerge during the season when bugs are few.

Pretty Certain This Is Magnolia Soulangeana Pretty Certain This Is Magnolia Soulangeana

The trees with pinkish red flowers, which I’m pretty sure are Magnolia Soulangeana or the saucer magnolia (among other names) have an interesting history.  Starting in 1820 a former French cavalry officer in Napoleon’s army crossed two varieties of magnolia that are native to China, denudata and lillifora.  The cavalry officer’s name was Soulange-Bolin, thus the name of the variety.

The hybrid turned out to be hardy and an impressive bloomer, so it quickly became popular across Europe and ended up in North America.  Thus it is very much an invasive plant to this continent, but one which is so well established it might as well be native.  It blooms a few days later than the white ones and thus is probably more likely to survive a cold snap and to be pollinated, but still I wonder about what kind of beetles are out there aiding the tree’s sex lives.

Newly Planted Magnolia Newly Planted Magnolia

The City carefully maintains the magnolias, keeping them growing upright and from getting too bushy.  They usually live about fifty years, these ones look pretty healthy.  The only one that died a few years back (I forget why) has been replaced and the young tree is blooming nicely.

Martin Seen Through A Magnolia Martin Seen Through A Magnolia

The magnolias go very well with the monument and statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, who no doubt was surrounded by a lot of magnolias in Georgia where he was born and raised.  But the trees were planted here along the Boulevard well before the monument was dedicated in 2000, they were here in 1985 when I moved to the neighborhood.  It would be interesting to find out when the magnolias were placed along here, and why. Perhaps there is some record in the City archives.

Forsythia Bush Almost Played Out By Early May Forsythia Bush Almost Played Out By Early May

Of course magnolias are not the only early spring flowers around here.  The very first flowers around here are the tough forsythias that blaze into bright yellow for a few days and then quickly yield to green leaves.  The branches of the shrub are a tangle of slim wands that the rest of the year serve as an excellent place for small birds to hide from hawks making their daily rounds, the little birds fluttering and screeching inside the protective bushes as the raptors eye them carefully. 

This Daffodil Was One Of The First Flowers To Emerge Around The Neighborhood This Daffodil Was One Of The First Flowers To Emerge Around The Neighborhood

Most of these other species, though, can handle the cold better if it hits them. There’s these little blue flowers that always emerge first in April before the snow has completely melted, I forget what you call them, followed by the bright yellow daffodils. And then the white daffodils in the park make their appearance.  

White Daffodils Next To Dr. King White Daffodils Next To Dr. King

After the beginning of May all kinds of flowers are in a big hurry to get out there and reproduce.  I’ve read that specific flowering plants often evolved along with some particular bug, bird or other kind of critter that it needs to move the pollen from the anther to the stigma, and thus to the ovary to make seeds.  But again, there are so few bugs out at this time and the birds don’t seem too interested in the flowers, so I wonder how they manage to reproduce.  But they do.

Dandelions Dandelions

Oddly, there are dandelions all over the place.  Seems to me they are more of a late spring and summer flower, I don’t recall seeing them this early.  They ought to be treated with respect because every part of the plant is nutritious food, someday that may become important for us all to survive.  It’s strange how much time money and effort goes into eradicating these innocent little flowers that could be a food crop.  

Former NY State Pathologist Ward Stone, who has always been deeply concerned about pesticide use, has a standard talk about dandelions.  He once listened to a State Cooperative Extension agent enthusiastically explain the many methods to rid lawns of the flower, which includes burning, digging, but mostly poisoning the landscape with herbicides.  Mr. Stone then asked the man, “So why should we do all this to get rid of the dandelions?”  Irritated, the man said, “Brown spots.  You don’t want brown spots in your lawn.”

Maple Tree Flowers Maple Tree Flowers

Then of course there are the maple trees.  They begin to form flowers early from green buds which will soon develop yellow petals.  Then after a day or two the petals will drop, carpeting the walkways with the tiny yellow petals, not to mention the parked cars.  After a few days I’ll have to clear off the petals from the walks as they shrivel into lawn trash. Interesting how many of the native early flowers are yellow.

Lawn Violets Lawn Violets

Okay, not all the flowers are yellow.  Around the neighborhood are the first of what I call lawn violets, tiny plants with tiny leaves and flowers that lay close to the ground.  It appears to me that these violets developed through natural selection to avoid decapitation by lawnmowers.  Most are purple but there are also white ones about.  Some of the lawns around here get covered with the flowers, especially if you don’t mow for a while.

Magnolia Already Dropping Petals Magnolia Already Dropping Petals

So the white magnolia flowers are already dropping into a neat circle around each tree, where they will soon turn brown.  Eventually when the grass grows a bit more the City guys will do their first mow of the year, which will clean up the petals.  And the magnolia trees will stand along MLK Boulevard looking not particularly interesting until perhaps this time next year, blooming again magnificently if we’re lucky.

Cherry Blossoms Cherry Blossoms

Oh, I almost forgot, there’s a decrepit old cherry tree up the street.  The twisted elderly thing looks like it is ready to kick the bucket, but it still managed to bloom this year.  The cherries it produces are few and a bit tart, that is, if it produces any at all.  The flowers are already half shot, but here they are anyway.