These are the mornings when I pull back the curtains and light floods into the room as if overnight there has been a sudden, heavy fall of snow. It’s the magnolia in the front garden, planted nearly thirty years ago that for a week two in spring is clothed in dazzling splendour, the creamy white flowers like candles, touched with pink blush.
It never lasts long; after their couple of weeks of glory, the petals fall and carpet the garden as if snow has fallen. Richard Lambert’s poem, ‘The Magnolia’, speaks of this:
Will you watch the wind blow
white blossom from the tree,
will you watch it blow,
the branches strained with love,
the garden stained with white,
will you watch the wind?
A blackbird leaps into the height
and sings; sky is blue.
Will you watch it blow?
The whiteness is a gift.
Soft, and slow, it opens
on the limbs. Watch it so.
Old hippy that I am, it’s usually a tune by The Grateful Dead that sings in my head as I gaze at the tree:
Sugar magnolia, blossoms blooming, heads all empty and I don’t care …
Sunshine, daydream, walking in the tall trees, going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose, breathing more freely,
Ride our singin, I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine
And those blissed-out lyrics seem just right for these days of fine weather, warmer than southerly parts of continental Europe such as Barcelona, Nice and Majorca. As if we’ve skipped a season and plunged straight into summer.
Magnolias are, I learned from Wikipedia, truly ancient. Named after a French botanist Pierre Magnol, they evolved even before bees appeared, the flowers developing to encourage pollination by beetles. Fossilised specimens of Magnolia have been found dating to 20 million years ago, and of plants identifiably belonging to the family Magnoliaceae dating to 95 million years ago. A primitive aspect of Magnolias is their lack of distinct sepals or petals.
This reminded me of the recent BBC TV series presented by geology professor Iain Stewart, How to Grow a Planet. Branching out from rocks and volcanoes, he set out to demonstrate how plants are the ‘silent power’ that has shaped the Earth as much the geological processes he usually describes.
As recently as 130 million years ago plant life was so limited in its evolutionary journey that the part of a plant we prize above all else – the flower – didn’t exist at all. Stewart went on to show that in the geologically short time they’ve been around flowers have brought about the single most powerful transformation in our planet’s history: they kick started an explosion of diversification in the animal kingdom – that ultimately lead to homo sapiens.
It was all to do with sex. All organisms have to reproduce to survive, and that’s what a flower is for, of course. But before flowers the plant kingdom consisted of conifers and ferns, and they relied on something completely random – wind and water –for reproduction.
But flowers are basically super-efficient sex organs which, by forming all kinds of partnerships with animals, were incredibly successful, transforming the planet and helping to steer evolution of animals at the same time.
Scientists still don’t know exactly how and why flowers appeared – there’s some evidence they share genes with fir cones, or evolved from adapted leaf structures. What’s remarkable is that flower fossils all start appearing around the same time – 140–130 million years ago. Darwin called this sudden appearance an ‘abominable mystery’.
Iain Stewart explained that flowers emerged at a time of geological transformation: the ancient mega-continent of Pangaea was breaking up and new habitats and niches were being formed. Flowering plants evolved a survival ‘toolkit’ that made them better adapted to colonise a changing planet. Above all, the reason why flowers were so successful was because they harnessed animals to reproduce – flies, beetles, and above all, bees.