Magdalen Road at night

Magdalen Road at night
December 2010

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Have you ever looked at the magnolias in St Leonard’s?

Have you ever looked at …

… the magnolias in St Leonard’s?

Last issue, I suggested that you looked at some man-made features of St Leonard’s. With the coming of spring, how about spending time admiring some of the trees? Throughout the neighbourhood, there are numerous spectacular trees. Let’s just focus on one species, which is notable in St Leonard’s at this time of year. Hopefully, when you read this, there will be magnolias in flower.

Magnolias have a special link with our city and the area; it was here that the Veitch family established their nursery, in Queen Victoria’s reign, with land at Gras Lawn. The Veitch nursery introduced many kinds of spring-flowering magnolia from Japan and China, raised from seed brought back by their plant hunters. Their efforts popularised several kinds, and in 1907 produced a hybrid known as Magnolia x Veitchii.

At this time of year, the oriental magnolias are coming into flower. In passing it should be mentioned that the American magnolia, grandiflora, flowers later in the year. There are several of these evergreens in St Leonard’s; there’s a prominent one on the north side of Magdalen Road, just before the junction with Barrack Road. The most popular variety of this tree is called “Exmouth”.

The south-east corner of County Hall grounds is home to several trees which should be flowering in March and April. You may be in time to see the huge pink blossoms of Campbell’s magnolia. It used to come into flower at the end of March, but in recent years the first flowers have appeared earlier and earlier in the year. Provided there has not been a frost to damage the flowers, it is a magnificent sight. As the Michelin Guides say, “Well worth a journey”. (And do remember, the grounds of County Hall are open to anyone to enjoy; I have met people who were under the impression they should keep out.) Magnolia corner, near the main entrance to County Hall has several other examples, flowering through March and April.

There are dozens more to be seen around our streets. For simplicity, most of them can be divided into three principal types. There are the trees whose flowers are shades of white and pink, sitting upright on the branches, and looking like wine glasses. These are cultivars of Magnolia soulangeana. There are trees with floppy white flowers, Magnolia kobus. The third group is made up of bushy, spreading low trees, again with floppy flowers, which may be white or pink. That’s the group of varieties of Magnolia stellata, the star magnolia.

Magnolias take their name from Pierre Magnol, a 17th century French botanist. The soulangeana hybrids were first created by another Frenchman, Etienne Soulange-Bodin in 1820. Kobus comes from Japan. The origin of the stellata varieties is confused, and botanists are not sure if the parent plant is found in the wild, or is the result of hybridising.

Besides a walk to County Hall, there are two short walks from the village to admire numerous examples of this special species. For the first walk, go along St Leonard’s Road, keeping your eyes open for trees of assorted sizes. Turn left into Wonford Road and walk to Lyndhurst Road, follow it up to Penleonard Close and leave by the footpath to Magdalen Road, to return to the village. A little later in spring, try walking along Marlborough Road, left to Lyndhurst Road, and follow it to Victoria Park Road and walk up to Magdalen Road. The second walk includes the sight of several examples of the later-flowering Magnolia lilliflora, one of the parents of the soulangeana hybrids. Their flowers are more like champagne flutes than wine goblets. Whichever walk you take, look out for the sight of pink, purple and white blooms showing over the walls and fences of St Leonard’s. How many different colours can you find?

By the way, magnolia flowers don’t have any petals. Botanically speaking, the plants produce tepals instead. There’s a useless piece of information for your next pub quiz evening!
Magnolia Corner at the entrance to County Hall from Topsham Road
Magnolia in flower in the grounds of County Hall with the wall of Coaver behind

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