Those sweet magnolias blossom

Spring is late this year but at last the magnolias are staging their pink and white displays; the flowers of some species reach a third of metre in diameter.

Those sweet magnolias blossom

Introduced from the Americas and the Far East, magnolias are cultural icons everywhere. Mississippi calls itself ‘the Magnolia State’ and Houston is nick-named ‘the Magnolia City’.

A begonia was named after Kim Jong-il on his 46th birthday in 1968 but, despite the dictator’s deification, Siebold’s magnolia remains North Korea’s national flower.

Pierre Magnol was born, and lived most of his life, in Montpellier, France. The city’s university had one of Europe’s first botanical gardens. Magnol, from a family of pharmacists, received his doctorate there in 1659.

He would go on to become a professor. In his day, everyone thought that plant and animal species were created directly by god; there was no reason, to suppose that they were related to each other.

Magnol, although a religious believer, noticed marked similarities between species. His concept of plant families would prove to be a major contribution to science. Such was his fame that, in 1703, the French botanist Charles Plumier named a tree found on the island of Martinique in his honour.

In 1735, Linnaeus accepted the name in the first edition of his ground-breaking Systema Naturae and ‘magnolia’ would go on to become a household name in every language.

Some 210 species are recognised but botanists are unsure as to how many magnolias there really are. In 1982, during a dig in Japan, archaeologists found a 2,000 year-old seed of what appeared to be Magnolia kobus, a native of the country.

When, 11 years later it blossomed, the resulting shrub seemed to confirm the identification.

The flowers however, had eight petals, whereas the modern Magnolia kobus normally has six. The tree went on to produce ones with six to nine petals.

Was this just an abnormal specimen or could it be the last survivor of a species going extinct? Either way, it seems that magnolias are capable of rapid adaptive change.

Their fossilised remains go back tens of millions of years; this ancient lineage could even be 90 million years old.

Nowadays, over 80% of plant species rely on flying insects to transport their pollen, the colours and scents of flowers offering inducements for them to do so. The oaks birches and pines of Ireland use our strong winds, rather than insects, to do the job, which explains why they seem dull compared to introduced exotics.

In 2012, two pieces of amber, containing tiny insects, were found in the Basque region of Spain.

The 2mm-long creatures, known as ‘thrips’, were covered in pollen grains. They had lived 105 to 110 million years ago. Insect pollination, however, seems to have begun some 60 million years earlier.

Magnolias evolved long before their current pollinators, the bees, appeared. The ancestors of bees were insect-eating wasps. Some of the creatures which the ancient wasps caught, may have been covered in nutrient-rich pollen.

Wasps would have developed a taste for it and this led to the evolution of bees. A specimen of a bee-like insect from Burma, preserved in amber, is thought to date from around the time the two thrips lived in Spain.

However if true, bees had yet to evolve, what kinds of insects pollinated the original magnolias? The oldest known candidates are beetles, a group appearing around 270 million years ago and whose descendents would, in time, become the largest family in the animal kingdom.

Flowers are fragile structures which seldom fossilise. Those of the magnolias however, are almost an exception.

Their reproductive parts were extra tough, maybe to withstand rough treatment meted out by the visiting nectar-gorging beetles.

Putting out huge gloriously-coloured flowers would in time become the centrepiece of a magnolia advertising campaign to secure market share among pollinating butterflies and bees.

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