Magnolias are old, with the earliest examples appearing in the fossil records some one hundred millions years ago. Born into the world before butterflies, before bees, magnolias made a pact with beetles and are pollinated exclusively by them. They are native to North America, yes, but also to South America and Asia, and have been beloved by both Chinese emperors and Aztec kings. Across all cultures they have touched, they have been known for their intoxicating scent, medicinal properties, and great beauty.
There are over two hundred species of magnolia in the world, and by our modern classification we have named them for Pierre Magnol. A French physician an d botanist, he is credited with instituting our concept of botanical classification. The family itself is called Magnoliaceae and can include both trees and more shrub-like plants. The grandiflora variety with its white blossoms is more widely known in the American South (being the state flower and tree of Mississippi, as well as the state flower of Louisiana). Their heady fragrance fills the campus of Ole Miss, and Billie Holiday immortalized them in song in “Strange Fruit”.
Magnolias are a popular tree for use in veneers, but is also being studied for its potential medicinal properties, and Chinese, Japanese, and Native American tribes have made use of bark extracts to treat depression, asthma, and muscle pain. Fortuitously, it is said to be safe for both humans and animals, and indeed its seeds are favored as a source of food by birds, squirrels, and possums. Though magnolias are an ancient tree, they typically only live about one hundred and thirty years, falling away gradually to make room for their numerous children. They can grow to be fifty feet wide, and their blooms can be over a foot wide on old dame trees.
Magnolias are famously associated with the American South. Things distinctly Southern are said to have come from “behind the Magnolia curtain”, and Southern accents have been referred to as “magnolia accents” since at least the 1960s. Women who were being courted were frequently gifted with bouquets of magnolias, which have carried connotations of “nobility” and “grace” since Victorians first began creating a language from flowers. In Georgia, it was said that planting a magnolia tree on your property would encourage luck, harmony, and financial stability within your home.
Magnolias have an eerie side to them, as well. Gullah families believed that the white blooms were residences for spirits and the restless dead, and for this reason it was very rare to see a magnolia tree in a Gullah yard. It would have been a bit like putting a graveyard next to your driveway. Influenced by this bit of folklore, Edgar Allan Poe famously used a magnolia tree to mark a pirate treasure that was hidden away.
The magnolia is a tree that demands fidelity in relationships and commitment to your partner. A musician from Tennessee, Will Batts, sang of its use in folk magic where it was sewn into the mattresses of lovers to keep them from straying, singing in his 1933 song “Country Woman” that “I don’t want no jealous-hearted woman, Great God, makin’ up my bed; man, she’ll put somethin’ in the mattress, make you wish you was dead.”
It is a wonder that the magnolia does not feature more prominently in the worship practices of North American Pagans, especially towards goddesses of marriage, love, or beauty, but this is easily changed. A few recommendations: Make an offering of magnolias to queenly goddesses. Lay their green, leathery leaves down like the pelts of animals for a shrine covering, and dangle their heavy blossoms over sacred statues. Let their red seeds scatter at the feet of the deities like a new world pomegranate, and spray their perfume in the air like an incense. The evergreen magnolia is a fitting tribute for an immortal goddess.
[Written by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]