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The Southern Magnolia

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Is this flower a work of art or what?

I found this Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) tree a couple of years ago in a park near my house, but I’d never seen it bloom. I actually wasn't sure it would bloom, since it's fairly far from its preferred range (typically starting in North Carolina and going down into Florida, Louisiana and Texas). Last week, I happened to walk by the tree and spotted a single flower on a low branch. It was cup-shaped with 6 petals, a luminous white and about as big as my open hand. A real show-stopper. The fragrance was something special too...sweet, light, lemony.

I was really tempted to make the essence, but it didn't feel right to take the tree's only flower. I didn't see any other buds. For the most part, I’ll only work with plants when there’s a surplus of flowers. If a plant produces only one flower (like Lady's Slipper), I’ll make an essence by dipping the live flower into a container of water - a technique that’s hard to pull off, logistically speaking, when working with trees. There’s also a way to make an essence without using any plant material at all, but it's not my go-to method. And since I've made all of my other tree essences using actual flowers, I wanted to keep production consistent across the board.

As I stood there, admiring the flower, I thought: "I'll make the essence when/if this tree produces at least 4 blooms." I felt a little sad walking away, but it seemed like the only choice under the circumstances. I hoped maybe next year, the tree would be more prolific.

It turns out I didn't have to wait a whole year. A few days later, I passed by again and found a second flower, just about to open. The tree's pretty small, so I gave it a thorough looking-over. This time, I found 2 more buds hiding in the leaves. I ran home and got my essence-making supplies.

Thinking that I’d have to wait…and then not having to wait…was a surprise on top of the surprise of finding this gorgeous thing in the first place. Obviously, the tree didn't flower FOR me, but it happened to answer (in flowers) the exact conditions for essence-making that felt intuitively right to me. Spending time with this Magnolia and observing its unfolding over several days was just...lovely. I felt I had an exchange with this particular tree - a kind of call-and-response - that I think can only arise when we're able to take the time to really be present and return to a source, to keep watching and learning. I don't want to anthropomorphize this Magnolia, but the more time I spend in Plant World, the more certain I am that nature is both able and eager to communicate with us - perhaps not in ways that we immediately recognize, but there is still a wealth of information there. Always.

So now we have...a new essence! Of course, the second half of this whole endeavor involves trying it out and observing its effects. I've offered essence study groups through Delta Gardens for the past few years. I'm actually just finishing one up right now, featuring an essence made from the Tulip Poplar tree. I'm not yet sure if I'll open another "official" group for the Southern Magnolia, but if you’re curious about the essence and feel called to try it, drop me a note. I’d be happy to mail you bottle in exchange for your feedback.

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