Its method of pollination was, and still is largely, through beetle-type insects. These beetles, which would travel between specimens, were attracted by the fragrance of the flowers, and the edible tissues and pollen contained within. In fact, to improve its means of successful pollination, the inner tepals of the flower could remain tightly shut for days on end, which allowed visiting beetles to feed safely and – at the same time – get covered in pollen. The Magnolia is however monoecious, meaning both male and female organs are found on the same specimen. To counteract the risk of self-fertilisation by visiting beetles, individuals will not mature their male and female organs at the same time. This enables pollen from one specimen’s male flower to reach the female organ of another.
The Magnolia hunters
The first Magnolia came to the UK in 1688 from the USA, courtesy of John Bannister. Bannister, a missionary, on his travels to Virginia, returned with Magnolia virginiana. Since then, a cascade of introductions occurred from the USA, and by 1800 most American species had been introduced and started being cultivated.
Records are less clear over when the Magnolia was first introduced from Asia, though it is considered that Magnolia denudata and Magnolia coco were both introduced around a century later than Magnolia virginiana – the former was brought over, in 1780, by Sir Joseph Banks.
The author of this book remarks that it was not these early Asiatic introductions that were so significant, but introductions from two plant hunters in the 20th century.
The first, George Forrest, was sent by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to collect plant specimens in Asia, though during his travels in China he remarked how dangerous it was – to the point that, in 1905, after the British begun invading China’s Lama (Tibet) region, any foreigner was seen as a threat. As a result, he and his team of 17 plant collectors had to flee, with hostile natives on their tail. After a period of nine days, and having stumbled into a village inhabited by friendly Lissoos (a sub-tribe of the Tibetans) at death’s door, the village leader managed to smuggle him and the only other survivor of his team out of China. On his travels, George Forrest managed to collect 31,000 plant species, of which eight were of the genus Magnolia and three new to cultivation.
The second, Ernest Henry Wilson, whilst having far less of a tale, introduced over 1,000 plant species from Asia into cultivation, including eight new species of Magnolia, making him the most significant ‘Magnolia hunter’ the world has ever seen. His introductions were: M. wilsonii, M. dawsoniana, M. delavayi, M. sprengeri, M. officinalis, M. sinensis, M. sargentiana, and M. s. robusta.
Source: Rankin, G. (1999) Magnolia. China: Hamlin