December 14, 2018

Caroline’s Garden Diaries 16.6.16: Chinese Wilson

Discovered an amazing thing last week; my recently acquired Magnolia wilsonii developed a weird looking lump on one of its twigs, a greeny-coloured sac, looking like a butterbean or an insect’s chrysalis. On closer inspection I wondered – could it actually be a flower bud? Great excitement if so – I bought this magnolia because I fell in love with it and its cousin M. sinensis on seeing them in Ray Wood, but had planted it in traditional spirit of a legacy for the future.

And then, three days ago, the weird growth opened into a flower – what a thrilling moment! M. wilsonii has the most beautiful flowers in the world, and here is one on a small plant in my garden.

What makes the flower so special, at least in my eyes, is the pure waxy white of its petals, contrasted with the deep crimson of its stamens gathered round a central milky-green receptacle, all arranged most elegantly to hang down rather than sitting on the branch as do the magnolias we normally grow. So when you walk under 30- or 40-year old trees, you look up and there’s heaven looking down.

Part of the thrill comes from the knowledge that this magnolia is one of Ernest Wilson’s introductions from his plant-hunting trips to China in the early 1900s. Reading about his incredible undertakings to find another magic tree, Davidia involucrata, involving a journey of thousands of miles, surviving horrendous dangers (imprisoned as a spy; punted by natives high on opium; chased by terrorist fighters), you feel so privileged to see his trees in this country.

Coming down to earth, literally, I’ve had to lie on wet grass to look up into my Chinese Wilson – and then I see that a slug has been there first; oh well, that’s life.