Facing Dulwich Picture Gallery from the gateway you will see, at any time of the year, two huge glossy green-leaved trees, one on either side of the building. These are Magnolia grandiflora. They show their enormous white flowers, which can be up to 25cms across, in late Spring but they continue to flower intermittently until November. Though they are reasonably hardy in this country, it is good that they have such sheltered positions to protect against frost. I wonder when they were planted here. They are the largest members of the genus Magnolia. Their popular name is bull bay.
They are of course trees native to the south eastern states of the of the USA. They were introduced to this country by the botanist Mark Catesby, who was English but had spent much time in America and is famous for his work: The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731-49). The watercolours illustrating this were purchased in 1768 by George III, and remain in the Queen’s collection.
I have seen these wonderful trees in their native home when travelling in North Carolina. I saw them in flower in spring, with their huge white blossoms. Some of the trees which had recently flowered looked quite exhausted, with their leaves flopping. George Washington grew them in his gardens at Mount Vernon, which was initially planted in 1785. The American Museum in Bath has planted a replica of the small botanic garden which was included in these gardens.
Magnolia is a huge and ancient genus, dating back to evolutionary times and indeed fossil remains have been found. There are about 210 species. The scope of it is easily understood, for after seeing these huge specimens you might also see a tiny Magnolia stellata in someone’s front garden, brightening up the spring with their star-shaped flowers.
Many hybrid varieties have been produced. One of the most successful of these occurred by chance in the wonderful garden at Nymans. Many of us have visited there with the Dulwich Society. The hybrid was named after :Leonard Messel, the owner of the garden who died in 1953. In 1955 it achieved an RHS Award of Merit. This was upgraded in 1969 to a first class certificate. It is a hybrid of M. stellata and M. kobus varieties. It is a very successful plant, much in evidence in garden centres, particularly as it flowers very young while still in pots. Magnolias are slightly tender, and need to be kept sheltered from north and east winds.