I have found the third sister to dance in my ‘Grove of Cadmus’ with Betula ermanii and Amelanchier canadensis. Magnolia kobus, the extroverted one. She has been a bright white flare in the garden all week. She carries her flowers before her leaves; six-petalled, loose blossoms of around 10cm/4″ across. They are star-formed, like her smaller cousin Magnolia stellata, and burn so brightly they start to fall within a week, strewing the ground with so many feather-like petals. In the language of the ‘goddess in triad’ she is Aphrodite (the birch is Hera, Amelanchier is Artemis), and her ephemeral, fragrant season is the perfect metaphor for the fleeting intoxication of love. The stellate flowers are fragile too, appropriately for my metaphor, in a way that the longer lasting tulip-formed or cup-shaped ones of other magnolias are not. But, just as I would always rather love and lose than never love, no matter the pain of heartache, Magnolia kobus deserves her place in the garden. My mythical grove would have a ratio of 3 Betula:2 Amelanchier:1 Magnolia. Extroverts are fun in company, but only when in the minority. The subtle birch and the gentle Amelanchier are needed for balance and stability. I am being a little unkind. The green foliage and not just the blossom is fragrant, and its dull gold in autumn adds a warm rather than fiery tone, and its subtlety is welcome.
Magnolia kobus is native to Japan and Korea and so fits the other ambition for my grove – that plants from hostile countries should be in harmony. It is named in honour of the French botanist Pierre Magnol and the English language does his name a disservice by hardening the ‘g’, making the name uglier than it need be. On the other hand, English softens the Genus named after the German botanist Leonhard Fuchs to the point of acceptability in polite company, so there are swings as well as roundabouts in the botanical playground.
The flowers of all MAGNOLIACEAE except for Liriodendron tulipifera, are pollinated by beetles because, being so ancient, they evolved before there were bees. Can any idea convey the parochial and transient nature of human concerns so well as that? There was a world before bees. And life in this world which remembers.