Two hundred years ago, here in the US, the War of 1812 had just begun, and with it came turmoil and tumult. However, this was also a time of great ferment and excitement – the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, an institution dedicated to the advancement of discovery, had just been founded in March of that year, and fewer than ten years prior to that, this country had expanded to reach from sea to sea, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, what with the Louisiana Purchase and that followed soon thereafter by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition out west, to explore those newly acquired lands. Clark and Lewis, respectively, made maps and sent back ethnographic specimens, and birds, and plants – and the vast majority of those plants are now here in Philadelphia, having arrived, by various means, at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Two hundred years ago was a time of troubles, but also of growth, expansion, discovery, here in the new world, and that sense of discovery, and some of those specific discoveries, still exist today.
Over in Europe, there was also war two hundred years ago – at this time, 1812, it was the Napoleonic wars, with armies sweeping back and forth across the continent, ravaging as they went. However, within a few years, Napoleon quite literally met his Waterloo, and so all of his employees, the soldiers that worked for him included, had to find new lines of work.
One of them, one of Napoleon’s soldiers, was a horseman, a chevalier, named Etienne Soulange-Bodin. Soulange-Bodin had therefore, as you might expect, traveled Europe, and he had seen the sights of the continent on this grand tour, but among the carnage and violence of war. However, among it all, he loved flowers and plants and trees, throughout, and as he writes (and is quoted/translated in Neil Treseder’s 1978 book, “Magnolias”): “The Germans have encamped in my gardens. I have encamped in the gardens of the Germans. I visited the collection of Schönbrun (Vienna), Schauenburg (near Minden), Stuttgart and Petrowski (Moscow).” And he then a bit later says that “It had doubtless been better for both parties to have stayed at home and planted their cabbages.”
And so, as you might guess, when Soulange-Bodin stopped being a soldier, he went on to become a horticulturalist – and one of the best that France had to offer, ultimately going on to found the Royal Institute of Horticulture at Fromont. Fromont was magnificent, and Soulange-Bodin was in interesting guy – as we read in J. C. Loudoun’s “Gardener’s Magazine”, vol 9, 1833 (p. 141):
“The Villa of Fromont, on the Seine – M. Soulange Bodin combines, at Fromont, an elegant villa residence with an exotic nursery, and an institution for young horticulturists. M. Soulange Bodin, like M. Vilmorin, is at once a skilful cultivator, a marchand grenetier (seedsman), a scholar, and an accomplished gentleman. As connected with the army, he has been all over Europe ; and having been long (to use the Prince de Ligne’s phrase) under the influence of the jardinomanie, wherever he went, the gardens were the main objects of his attention. At one time he had the principal management of the gardens of the Empress Joséphine at Malmaison. On M. Bodin’s retirement to Fromont, in 1814, he commenced laying it out in the English manner, and so as to combine the picturesque scenery of the park with the profitable culture of the nursery. The grounds exceed a hundred acres of a surface gently varied, and sloping to the Seine.”
Soulange-Bodin had an enormous variety of plants, some that came in from distant lands – he had the Yulan magnolia (which we would now call Magnolia denudata), a tree with lovely white flowers, native to eastern China, that had been cultivated in China and Japan for centuries prior to its introduction to Europe in 1780 by Joseph Banks. He also had the Purple Lily-flowered magnolia, a shrubby magnolia with purple flowers – originally native to China, it had been introduced to Europe by Carl Thunberg in 1790. (the above information is all from Treseder’s Magnolias (1978), by the way)
He looked at these plants growing in his garden, and knowing that one could take pollen from one tree and place it on the stigmatic surface (the receptive surface of the female part of a flower, that is) of an other, and thereby combine traits from distinct plant lines into novel combinations of characters, he did just that – he wanted to put the purple flowers of Magnolia liliflora (which he called Magnolia discolor) onto the tree habit of Magnolia denudata (which he called Magnolia yulan), and he was successful, as is reported in the 5th tome of the Mémoires de la Société Linnéenne de Paris, published in 1827, where following announcement was made:
“By the combination of Magnolia yulan, providing the seed, with the pollen from Magnolia discolor, the gardens of Fromont have seen the birth, the growth, and the taking of its place among the varied cultivated plants that we admire, a new species remarkable by its arborescent habit, its beautiful foliage, and especially by its large and brilliant flowers where the virginal white is colored with a purple tint. My honorable Confreres have given this beautiful species the name Magnolia soulangiana.” (translation mine)
Furthermore, in the Bulletin des Sciences Agricoles et Économique, Tome VI, (Paris; 1826), it was mentioned that Etienne Soulange-Bodin had announced his creation to the world, or, at least to the Linnean Society of Paris – this was covered in more detail in the publication, Relation de la cinquième fête champêtre célébré le 24 mai 1826 in: Comte-Rendu des Travaux de la Société Linnéenne de Paris (1826), where Soulange-Bodin states:
“It is with the joy of an innocent triumph that I have the honor, sirs and dear brothers, of saying to you a word about the beautiful hybrid product that I have recently obtained in my cultures. It is a new Magnolia, provided by the seed, of M. praecia, or yulan, fertilized by the pollen of M. purpurea, or discolor.” (translation mine)
As Neil G. Treseder points out in his book “Magnolias” (1978), “It should be pointed out here that the date 1826 apparently referred to the initial flowering of the particular hybrid seedling which Soulange-Bodin had selected to perpetuate his name.” Therefore, the actual act of hybridization would have taken place a fair bit earlier, probably around 1820, given that it took about 8 years (more about that below) to get seeds from the plant that came from this initial hybrid.
There was tremendous excitement around this new plant. Pierre-Joseph Redouté, in his 1827 work Choix des plus belles fleurs, provides an exquisite illustration of Magnolia soulangiana:
Image from the Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library print collection ( http://www.rhsprints.co.uk/image/447110/redoute-pierre-joseph-1759-1840-artist-magnolia-soulangiana )
Redouté was the plant illustrator of the 19th century – he worked with Empress Josephine at Malmaison (her garden), and Francois Andre Michaux, and his rose illustrations are justifiable legendary and a touchstone for rosarians to this day. This book, the Choice of the Most Beautiful Flowers, was his selection of the most beautiful flowers that existed. And this included a new magnolia – Magnolia soulangiana, which he had gotten right from the source (On p. 11 of Redouté’s Choix des plus belles fleurs, it is noted that the flower came from Soulange (“Elle a ete obtenue par M. Soulange-Bodin, a Fromont“)).
Word quickly spread across the channel – in The Atheneum; or Spirit of the English Magazines (p. 487) – vol VII, second series, April to October 1827
“A new species of the Magnolia has been produced by the Chevalier Soulange Bodin, President of the Linnean Society of Paris.
This elegant production to which the Linnean Society of Paris has very properly given the name of Magnolia Soulangiana is only in its second year, and it is not yet known whether the variety will become constant in its form and constitute a new species, – a fact which next year’s produce will decide.”
The plant itself arrived in England quickly, as we see from the Botanical Register, vol. 14, published in London in 1827:
“A very handsome variety of the Yulan Magnolia, obtained, as we are informed by the Chevalier Soulange-Bodin, in his Garden at Fromont, from a seed of M. Yulan, which had been fertilised by the pollen of M. obovata.
Our drawing was made at the Nursery of Messrs. Young, of Epsom by whom the variety had been procured from M. Soulange. It has been so short a time in this country that little is known of its good qualities except by report…””
The nursery mentioned above was quite excited about this new plant, as is indicated by the following report, from vol. 5 of Loudoun’s “Gardener’s Magazine” (published in London in 1829):
“Messrs. Young have bought the entire stock of Magnolia Soulangiana from M. Soulange Bodin for 500 guineas, in consequence of which that fine tree will soon be spread all over the country.”
This was a new plant, and a beautiful plant – and horticulturalists in centuries past, as they do to this day, respond enthusiastically to novelty, and to beauty, and the horticulturalists of England responded to the introduction of Soulange’s magnolia by buying them up.
And now, on to America…
By 1832, this magnolia was in the US, as is indicated from its listing in the Periodical catalogue of greenhouse shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants, and bulbous roots: cultivated and for sale at the Linnean Botanic Garden, Flushing, near New York, William Prince & Sons, Proprietors that year (thanks to Maggie Graham of the California Garden & Landscape History Society, for guiding me towards that reference, and to Janet Evans, of the McLean Libray of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, for guiding me to Ms. Graham’s guidance). You’ll note that the price of this plant is $8/piece – as Joel Fry (of Bartram’s Garden) has pointed out, this is extremely expensive; he notes that most trees or shrubs at that time were 50 cents or a dollar per plant, and that a rare and/or new plant might be $5 or so, and therefore the price, eight dollars, is indicative of the rarity and the novelty of the Magnolia soulangeana, when it first arrived in America – excitement surrounded it, as did the dollars.
I note that those plants growing in the Linnean Botanic Garden in 1832 would most probably have been from cuttings from Soulange-Bodin’s original hybrid, or from cuttings derived directly therefrom, as his (Soulange-Bodin’s) original tree did not set seed until 1834, as is noted in Daniel Jay Browne’s 1846 book, “Trees of America” (p. 20):
“At Fromont near Paris, in front of the chateau of M. Soulange-Bodin, stands the largest plant of the Magnolia conspicua in Europe. It measures over forty feet in height, and twenty four inches in circumference, two feet from the ground ; and the diameter of the space covered by the branches is more than twenty five feet. It flowers magnificently every year, at the end of March and beginning of April, and the perfume of its blossoms is perceived for some distance around. It was from the seeds of this tree that sprang the far-famed variety Magnolia conspicua soulangeana, the leaves, wood and general habits of which, are allied to those of the parent tree; but the flowers resemble in form those of the Magnolia purpurea, or of the Magnolia purpurea gracilis, and the petals are slightly tinged with purple. This variety was accidentally produced by fecundating the flowers of the Magnolia conspicua with the pollen of those of the Magnolia purpurea. The original plant of the Magnolia conspicua soulangeana, at Fromont, is more than twenty feet in height, and though it flowered several years before, it did not ripen seeds till 1834. The seeds have been sown, and some new and interesting varieties produced from them.”
And so we know that by 1832 this tree was in the US, at Prince’s nursery in Queens, NY (i.e, the Linnean Botanic Garden), and that these specific plants were most likely direct descendants, clones, actually, from the original tree grown from the hybrid seed developed at Fromont by Soulange-Bodin. (note also that the above quote indicates that it took about 8 years for Soulange-Bodin’s original hybrids to set seed)
And by 1836, we know it was in Philadelphia – as is indicated from its listing in Robert Carr’s Periodical Catalogue of Fruit and Ornamental Trees and Shrubs, Green-House Plants, &c. Cultivated and for Sale at the Bartram Botanic Garden, Kingsessing, Near Gray’s Ferry, Three Miles From Philadelphia from that year [p. 12; no price; “Magnolia soulangeana” “Soulange’s [magnolia]”]. (thanks to Joel Fry, of Bartram’s Garden, for directing me to that reference – and to the staff of the Library of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and especially Cathy Buckwalter, for getting me access to it)
In that 1836 catalogue, there wasn’t a price listed for Soulange’s magnolia (the other plants in the catalogue had prices associated with them), and from this we can infer also the rarity and novelty of this plant – it wasn’t even clear to the Carr’s how to price it, it was so new.
But might it have been in Philadelphia earlier than 1836?
At the Wyck Historic House and Garden in Germantown, there is a saucer magnolia – you can see its once magnificent size represented by the girth of its base that now pokes a bit up out of the ground. I rarely see saucer magnolias with trunks of the width of the Wyck example, and so I can’t judge clearly its age, however, based on general extrapolation from what I’ve seen of younger trees, I wouldn’t feel like I’m putting my neck too far out by saying that this is a 19th century planting and perhaps, even, possibly, one that might date to the earlier half of the 1800s.
The Wyck house dates to the 17th century, but the key part of its history to our story here is its 19th century owners, Jane and Reuben Haines. Both were ardent lovers of plants, gardens, the natural world – Reuben was Corresponding Secretary of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia from 1813 until he died (in 1831), and Jane made a garden at Wyck of stunning beauty and depth. She was creating this garden in the 1820s and 1830s – that is, when Magnolia soulangeana first came to be, and first came to the US.
And, as I was informed by Nicole Juday (Nicole is a gardener, historian, and all-around extraordinarily knowledgeable person): “From everything I know the Haines’ only got plants from Philadelphia and from Flushing, NY. To my great sorrow I never did come across any receipt for a plant, although there were thousands of invoices for everything else from apples to string to bolts of cloth. But there were a few references to plants “from Prince Nursery” in family papers and lists. Jane Haines’ parents lived in Flushing and she visited there frequently, especially after Reuben’s death.”
And so we find a Magnolia soulangeana at Wyck that is quite large, indicating its great age, and we know that Jane Haines was buying materials in from the “Prince Nursery” (i.e, the Linnean Botanic Garden indicated above), and we know that they, the Prince nursery, had this tree very early on, and that they, the Prince nursery, quite possibly (likely, even, one might say) had the original cross of this plant, the one that was derived from Soulange-Bodin’s garden – and we know that Jane Haines was planting plants at Wyck in the 1830s.
And so, while this is all, at this point, evidence that is suggestive without telling, it does lead one to think that this tree at Wyck may well be one that directly connects to Soulange-Bodin’s garden – not a cousin, not just a sibling even, but possibly an identical twin of the flower illustrated by the illustrious Redouté. We are still looking for further evidence, hopefully more conclusive, that this is (or is not) the case, but until then we can build a story of this tree created by the hand of former soldier, who turned his swords into plowshares and developed one of the greatest gardens of France, and therefore of Europe, whose tree ultimately found its way across the Atlantic to the yard of a Quaker, a pacifist, here in Philadelphia. Having followed years of war, but also times of exploration and discovery, this peaceful garden in Germantown, that still exists to this day, holds not just memories, but living history of a time past gone, but still alive.
But it is not quite the original planting that is still alive, I should say – this saucer magnolia had aged, as do all things, even trees, and it had rotted quite a bit on the inside (which is why I can’t count the rings to see for sure how old it is), and so the main trunk had to be taken down recently. However, there are new stems coming up and out from its remains, stems that are being carefully tended by Elizabeth Belk, the current gardener at Wyck – and she is also putting her efforts towards propagating this tree, by air layering, so that this magnificent plant that may well be immediately descended from the first of the saucer magnolias can live on, and perhaps even live elsewhere, too.
By the 1840s, the Magnolia soulangeana was quite common in the US. In the 1841 and 1850 editions of Andrew Jackson Downing’s Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, there is a “list of hardy and showy shrubs which are at the same time easily procured in the United State.” Included in this list is the Magnolia soulangeana, whose common name is given as the “Soulange Magnolia”; it is also indicated as being a large shrub, and being purple. It being noted as a shrub indicates its relative novelty – these plants hadn’t grown into their full tree size yet.
Earlier in the treatise, there is a more detailed discussion of this plant, and its parents, too:
“The foreign sorts introduced into our gardens from China are the Chinese purple (M. purpurea) which produces an abundance of large delicate purple blossoms early in the season, the Yulan or Chinese White Magnolia (M. conspicua) a most abundant bloomer, bearing beautiful white fragrant flowers in April, before the leaves appear ; and Soulange’s Magnolia (M. Soulangiana), a hybrid between the two foregoing, with large flowers delicately tinted with white and purple. These succeed well in sheltered situations in our pleasure-grounds, and add greatly to their beauty early in the season. Grafted on the cucumber tree, they form large and vigorous trees of great beauty.” (p. 254)
This tree was becoming quite popular and it became quite common, too, and this has continued on, up until the present. Today, the saucer magnolia, as this tree is generally now called, is extremely commonly seen as a park or lawn planting, and there are dozens of cultivars available (as is noted by Michael Dirr in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (1998)). If you go to the northwest corner of Rittenhouse Square, in downtown Philadelphia, there are two lovely ones that have been there for a few decades (the one to the east is less than 40 years old, the one to the west a bit older than that – this is indicated from their respective presence/absence in planting maps of the park, one from the 1960s and the other from the 1970s). And if you go pretty much anywhere in the city, this one or others, you will see the saucer magnolia flowering brightly in the spring – it is a hardy grower with beautiful flowers, and so it is commonly planted.
It is such a strong grower that it has naturalized in Ohio, as a matter of fact – it has been found growing on its own near a cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio – Spring Grove Cemetery, in October of 1995, to be a bit more exact, in a “weedy woods” – as was documented by Michael Vincent and Allison Cusick in their 1998 paper “New Records of alien Species in the Ohio Vascular Flora (Ohio Journal of Science 98(2), 1998)
And so we have a tree that is now extraordinarily common – there are dozens of cultivars, they are planted all over in parks and yards in cities and suburbs, all over, and it has even naturalized here, in the US.
But this is not always how it was – this is a tree, a hybrid, whose parents traveled separately to Europe from Asia, to come together in a garden not far from Paris, to be united by a man who had soldiered across Europe but retired to live among flowers, a tree that then went on, this beautiful and strong plant, to enter into commerce at the highest price, at some point to be bought by a Quaker, a pacifist, in what was no longer quite the new world but was certainly new to this plant, to grow here in Philadelphia, and to then, to go on, to recently fall apart from the inside, but to then to grow anew, and to continue to survive, with help and care, to live on in a changed world that is everchanging onwards.
For a video on saucer magnolia propagation, see here: