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Magnolia flowers fall apart beautifully

by William (Ned) Friedman, Director of the Arnold Arboretum
July 19, 2017

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Magnolia flowers fall apart beautifully

Things fall apart. That is the essence of a plant. I don’t mean the kind of falling apart of decay, but rather, the wonderful falling apart of the regular shedding of plant organs after they have served their given tasks. Bud scales after bud burst in the spring, petals after a flower is pollinated, leaves in the autumn before winter sets in. Although I often find myself aiming to see a flower at its “peak,” just after it has opened, the intricate beauty of a flower persists long after most of the floral parts have fallen away. Such was the case yesterday with the Magnolia ‘Freeman’ specimen (830-75*A – map here) in the Centre Street Beds.


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Stripped down to its elemental female parts (left image), after all of the other floral organs have fallen away, the scars still tell the tale of the once fully assembled flower. The precise spirals of scars in the purple region of the floral axis (left image) speak to the dozens and dozens of stamens that recently shed their pollen, abscised, and fell into the embrace of the petal-like organs (upper right), to eventually be scattered by the wind. Below the stamen scars (left image), the large beige scars of the formerly magnificent white tepals (petal-like organs in a magnolia; upper right). And at the top (left image), the coiled and desiccated brown stigmas (parts of the flower that receive pollen) that days ago, sprung from the flower in a Medusa-like head of purple-striped snakes (lower right).

The Freeman magnolia is an interspecific hybrid that resulted from crosses between Magnolia virginiana (sweetbay magnolia) and Magnolia grandiflora (southern magnolia) at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington D.C. The scent is extraordinary. So if you visit this tree, lean into an open flower and inhale. And for a great Arnoldia article on magnolia hybrids, head here.

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