Do you recognize this mystery plant?
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This week’s mystery plant is an early blooming magnolia. Do you recognize it? Photo by John Nelson
William Shakespeare, from “Much Ado About Nothing,” Act 5, Scene 4, “What’s the matter, that you have such a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?”
Spring 2022 seems to be coming awfully early, at least in many parts of the south: plenty of garden weeds popping up, crocuses and daffodils, Lenten-rose, and of course, red maple, elms, alders, and some oaks are already showing their stuff and doing their thing.
Botanists postulate that early-blooming plants are able to capitalize on early pollinators, when there is not so much competition with the abundance of flowers a bit later on. The problem is, early blooming is a bit risky: late frosts can damage or even eliminate functional flowers, reducing or even eliminating fruit and seed development. Just ask the peach growers!
This week’s “Mystery Plant” is an early bloomer, and I’ll go ahead and tell you that yes, it is a magnolia. You’ve probably seen it (or one of its relatives) blooming now. It is a species that is native to Japan and which is widely grown in cultivation.
There are nearly 150 species of the genus “Magnolia,” widely distributed in the northern hemisphere, especially eastern Asia and North and Central America. In the southeastern U.S.A. there are 12 or so species.
Different magnolia species can be shrubs or trees, some species attaining considerable size and height. In general, the magnolias can be divided into two groups of species, deciduous and evergreen. Indeed, some of the deciduous species are early-spring bloomers, such as this one.
All of the magnolias exhibit similar flowers, in a structural sense. Their open flowers feature an abundance of parts, generally with lots of colorful or otherwise attractive tepals. In the center of the flower will be something of a stalk, and at its base will be a number of stamens which will be arranged in a tight spiral.
Above the stamens will be another spiral of parts, the individual pistils. Of course, it is these pistils which will, if all goes well, each produce a single seed.
When you take a look at one of these magnolia flowers (whichever species) you might be struck by the fact that there are lots of parts, and the parts all seem to be separate from each other. Other flowers following this architecture would include waterlilies, buttercups, cactus, ice-plants, and from Australia, the Proteas.
A very old way of thinking about this was that the plants whose flowers resemble each other in this way must be related: an idea that has been completely discarded by now. On the other hand, plenty of the flowers around us have relatively few parts; that is, only a few sepals and petals, stamens and pistils; and these parts often exhibit some degree of fusion with themselves.
Common examples would include snapdragons, squash, honeysuckle, bee-balm, and trumpet-creeper. All of these last mentioned has a flower with only five petals, and these petals are so fused together at their margins that they form a distinctive tube.
Good luck with your local weather…I hope you’ll all have plenty of spring flowers and no late frosts!
Answer: “Star magnolia,” Magnolia stellata
John Nelson is the retired curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or email email@example.com.