Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fantastic Fragrance - The Southern Magnolia

On a muggy, May afternoon in Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa, FL, I find myself wiping rivulets of sweat off my face. As we amble down the trail, I swat away an entourage of mosquitoes that gravitate towards me and retreat with every swing of an arm. There is a hypnotic fragrance that wafts through the woods on the slightest of breezes. I raise my shoulder to wipe away the sweat. I flail my arm at the marauding blood suckers. The motions become routine. But the sweet aroma that undulates on unseen air currents leads me by my nose to undiscovered treasures.

To describe a fragrance is as easy for me as tasting music. No description could do it justice. It’s a pleasant, sugared scent that distracts me from my sweat-soaked clothing, and blood-spattered, mosquito bitten skin. As we make our way through a forest of Bald Cypress and Live Oaks we arrive at a clearing spiked with half-a-dozen, 60 foot tall trees adorned with massive white blooms. There is no mistaking the identity of the Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).

Magnolias are named after French botanist Pierre Magnol and the species name “grandiflora” refers to the head-sized flowers they produce. The foot-wide bloom is decorated with a pineapple shaped structure that includes the female carpels and the male stamens at the base. Magnolias have been around since before the rise of bees and the trees were originally pollinated by beetles. The flowers evolved tough carpels to prevent damage from beetles crawling around on their surface. Today, bees and other flying pollinators assist beetles in propagating the species. Eventually the petals will fall away, the sweet scent will dissipate and by late summer the fruit will mature and spit out dozens of crimson, half-inch seeds.

We can’t linger long. The mosquitoes have caught up and the sun is blazing. I break the hypnotic hold the tree has on my olfactory senses and ponder the notion that I can’t remember what it smells like already. I just know when I smell it again I’ll like it. 


  1. I want to go to that place and see those trees in bloom, so thank you for taking me there. I have never seen a wild magnolia tree. Are they scarce? Are they early or late successional?

  2. I thought about cutting off one of those flowers and sticking it in my office, but then I would rob all those people who would have walked by a beautiful white flower.

  3. delightful midmorning break to read... i know i enjoy the scent, too, but can't recollect it. i think it's worth pointing out, too, that the entire taxonomic division of flowering plants and subsequent taxonomic class of dicots are known as Magnoliophyta and Magnoliopsida, respectively. i think that's cool, so i guess there's no denying my plant-geekness.
    :) k8 of b'more

  4. @Susan - Southern Magnolia is found in most of the gulf states - http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/magnolia/grandiflora.htm - they aren't typically found as far south as Fort Myers where I am but I see more and more of them planted. They aren't rare but you don't see them growing in stands. at least not in central Florida.