Magnolias (Magnolia sp.)

I found the magnolias in New Haven rather striking in springtime, being much larger and showier than delicate cherry blossoms. This genus comprises about 210 species, although throughout my years there I’d only spotted three types in the city. I tried pointing them out to a fellow biologist once, till a squirrel stole the limelight and I gave up. One wonders why I’d think an online audience would be interested, but let’s just leave that question for another day.

Cedar Street was home to food carts, shuttles, birds, bugs, and two star magnolia trees, sitting snugly between the Okame cherries. Like all magnolias, the star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) doesn’t have distinct sepals and petals. The perianth (the external part of the flower surrounding the reproductive bits) is undifferentiated and called tepals instead. Native to Japan, it was introduced into North America in 1862, and popular for its large white blossoms with radiating tepals, giving rise to its name. It flowers early in spring, putting out elongated little buds that look like grey, blobby, fuzzy peanuts. Eventually the bud pops open and pink tepals emerge, before opening fully into a white flower tinged with just a bit of pink. The tree looks lovely covered in blossoms, before they’re replaced by bright green leaves.

star magnolia

Close to the gym, pink magnolias grew against a backdrop of brown stone buildings (assuming you looked away from the dusty road on the other side). These I’m not sure if I identified correctly, but they seem like Loebner magnolias (Magnolia × loebneri = Magnolia kobus × Magnolia stellata). They look quite similar to star magnolias, but are a pretty pink instead of white.

loebner magnolia

Saucer magnolias (Magnolia × soulangeana = Magnolia denudata × Magnolia liliiflora) were the ones I saw only when I was running to the bank. They’re a lot stiffer than the other two types of magnolias, and have petals that stand upright, like a cup and saucer. Being tolerant to wind and alkaline soils, they’re comparatively easy to grow and a popular garden choice, partly for their brightly coloured flowers.

saucer magnolia

Besides being grown as ornamentals, some species have medicine properties as well. Magnolia officinalis, native to China, is one such example. The bark of two subspecies: officinalis and biloba, is stripped and dried, and used in the treatment of bloating, constipation, anxiety, and ‘dampness’. In Chinese the dried bark is known as 厚朴, and largely produced in Sichuan and Hubei provinces. For its medicinal properties, the plant is protected (class II). Its chemical compounds and mechanism of action have been extensively studied, and have also been found to have anti-bacterial and anti-tumour properties. In particular, the compounds magnolol and honokiol, which are possibly some of the most adorable chemical names I’ve come across, have been found to affect the activity of receptors known as PPARγ and GABA receptors, in turn playing a role in modulating fatty acid storage, glucose metabolism, and neuronal signals.



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