Magnolia is an ancient genus. Appearing before bees did, it is theorized the flowers evolved to encourage pollination by beetles. To avoid damage from pollinating beetles, the carpels of Magnolia flowers are extremely tough. Fossilised specimens of Magnolia acuminata have been found dating to 20 million years ago, and of plants identifiably belonging to the Magnoliaceae dating to 95 million years ago. Another aspect of Magnolias that is considered to represent an ancestral state is that the flower bud is enclosed in a bract rather than in sepals; the perianth parts are undifferentiated and called tepals rather than distinct sepals and petals. Magnolia shares the tepal characteristic with several other flowering plants near the base of the flowering plant lineage such as Amborella and Nymphaea (as well as with many more recently derived plants such as Lilium).
In 1703 Charles Plumier (1646–1704) described a flowering tree from the island of Martinique in his Genera. He gave the species, known locally as "talauma", the genus name Magnolia, after Pierre Magnol. The English botanist William Sherard, who studied botany in Paris under Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, a pupil of Magnol, was most probably the first after Plumier to adopt the genus name Magnolia. He was at least responsible for the taxonomic part of Johann Jacob Dillenius's Hortus Elthamensis and of Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. These were the first works after Plumier's Genera that used the name Magnolia, this time for some species of flowering trees from temperate North America. Carolus Linnaeus, who was familiar with Plumier's Genera, adopted the genus name Magnolia in 1735 in his first edition of Systema naturae, without a description but with a reference to Plumier's work. In 1753, he took up Plumier's Magnolia in the first edition of Species plantarum. Since Linnaeus never saw an herbarium specimen (if there ever was one) of Plumier's Magnolia and had only his description and a rather poor picture at hand, he must have taken it for the same plant which was described by Catesby in his 1730 Natural History of Carolina. He placed it in the synonymy of Magnolia virginiana var. fœtida, the taxon now known as Magnolia grandiflora.
The species that Plumier originally named Magnolia was later described as Annona dodecapetala by Lamarck, and has since been named Magnolia plumieri and Talauma plumieri (and still a number of other names) but is now known as Magnolia dodecapetala.
When Linnaeus took up Magnolia in his Species plantarum (1753), he created a genus of only one species: Magnolia virginiana. Under that species he described five varieties (glauca, fœtida, grisea, tripetala and acuminata). In the tenth edition of Systema naturae (1759), he merged grisea with glauca, and raised the four remaining varieties to species status.
By the end of the 18th century, botanists and plant hunters exploring Asia began to name and describe the Magnolia species from China and Japan. The first Asiatic species to be described by western botanists were Magnolia denudata and Magnolia liliiflora, and Magnolia coco and Magnolia figo. Soon after that, in 1794, Carl Peter Thunberg collected and described Magnolia obovata from Japan and at roughly the same time Magnolia kobus was also first collected.
With the number of species increasing, the genus was divided into the two subgenera Magnolia and Yulania. Magnolia contains the American evergreen species Magnolia grandiflora, which is of horticultural importance, especially in the United States, and Magnolia virginiana, the type species. Yulania contains several deciduous Asiatic species, such as Magnolia denudata and Magnolia kobus, which have become horticulturally important in their own right and as parents in hybrids. Classified in Yulania, is also the American deciduous Magnolia acuminata (Cucumber tree), which has recently attained greater status as the parent which is responsible for the yellow flower colour in many new hybrids.
Relations in the family Magnoliaceae have been puzzling taxonomists for a long time. Because the family is quite old and has survived many geological events (such as ice ages, mountain formation and continental drift), its distribution has become scattered. Some species or groups of species have been isolated for a long time, while others could stay in close contact. To create divisions in the family (or even within the genus Magnolia), solely based upon morphological characters, has proven to be a nearly impossible task.
By the end of the 20th century, DNA sequencing had become available as a method of large scale research on phylogenetic relationships. Several studies, including studies on many species in the family Magnoliaceae, were carried out to investigate relationships. What these studies all revealed was that genus Michelia and Magnolia subgenus Yulania were far more closely allied to each other than either one of them was to Magnolia subgenus Magnolia. These phylogenetic studies were supported by morphological data.
As nomenclature is supposed to reflect relationships, the situation with the species names in Michelia and Magnolia subgenus Yulania was undesirable. Taxonomically there are three choices; 1: to join Michelia and Yulania species in a common genus, not being Magnolia (for which the name Michelia has priority); 2: to raise subgenus Yulania to generic rank, leaving Michelia names and subgenus Magnolia names untouched; or 3: to join Michelia with genus Magnolia into genus Magnolias.l. (a big genus). Magnolia subgenus Magnolia can not be renamed because it contains Magnolia virginiana, the type species of the genus and of the family. Not many Michelia species have so far become horticulturally or economically important, apart for their wood. Both subgenus Magnolia and subgenus Yulania include species of major horticultural importance, and a change of name would be very undesirable for many people, especially in the horticultural branch. In Europe, Magnolia even is more or less a synonym for Yulania, since most of the cultivated species on this continent have Magnolia (Yulania) denudata as one of their parents. Most taxonomists who acknowledge close relations between Yulania and Michelia therefore support the third option and join Michelia with Magnolia.
The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for the (former) genera Talauma and Dugandiodendron, which are then placed in subgenus Magnolia, and genus Manglietia, which could be joined with subgenus Magnolia or may even earn the status of an extra subgenus. Elmerrillia seems to be closely related to Michelia and Yulania, in which case it will most likely be treated in the same way as Michelia is now. The precise nomenclatural status of small or monospecific genera like Kmeria, Parakmeria, Pachylarnax, Manglietiastrum, Aromadendron, Woonyoungia, Alcimandra, Paramichelia and Tsoongiodendron remains uncertain. Taxonomists who merge Michelia into Magnolia tend to merge these small genera into Magnolia s.l. as well. Botanists do not yet agree on whether to recognize a big Magnolia genus or the different small genera. For example, Flora of China offers two choices: a large Magnolia which includes about 300 species, everything in the Magnoliaceae except Liriodendron (tulip tree), or 16 different genera, some of them recently split out or re-recognized, each of which contains up to 50 species. The western co-author favors the big Magnolia genus, whereas the Chinese co-authors recognize the different small genera.
This nearly comprehensive species list has been adapted from the one used by the Magnolia Society. It does not represent the last word on the subclassification of the genus Magnolia (see above), as a clear consensus has not yet been reached.
In general, Magnolia is a genus which has attracted a lot of horticultural interest. Some, such as the star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) and the saucer magnolia (Magnolia × soulangeana), flower quite early in the spring, before the leaves open. Others flower in late spring or early summer, including the sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) and the Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).
In the eastern United States, five native species are frequently in cultivation: M. acuminata (as a shade tree), M. grandiflora, M. virginiana, M. tripetala, and M. macrophylla. The last two species must be planted where high winds are not a frequent problem because of the size of their leaves.
The bark and flower buds of Magnolia officinalis have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is known as hou po (厚朴). In Japan, kōboku, Magnolia obovata has been used in a similar manner.
Parallel view ()
Cross-eye view ()
Mature Magnolia fruit just starting to open, with a few seeds visible.
The cucumbertree, Magnolia acuminata, grows to large size and is harvested as a timber tree in northeastern US forests. Its wood is sold as "yellow poplar" along with that of the tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipifera. The Fraser magnolia, M. fraseri, also attains enough size sometimes to be harvested as well.
In parts of Japan, the leaves of Magnolia obovata are used for wrapping food and as cooking dishes.
Steel Magnolias is a 1989 American comedy-drama film about the bond among a group of women from Louisiana, who can be as beautiful as magnolias, but are as tough as steel. The magnolia specifically references a magnolia tree they are arguing about at the beginning. On October 10, 2011, Lifetime Television Network announced that a remake of the film is planned featuring African-American actors in the lead roles.
Magnolia seeds and fruit on a tree in northern Argentina
David Sylvian recorded a song titled The Scent Of Magnolia in 1999. This was included on the 2000 compilation Everything and Nothing and was also released as a promotional single.
In the 1939 song Strange Fruit, written to condemn the practice of lynching, the Magnolia flower was referenced as being associated with the Southern United States, where most lynchings took place: "Pastoral scene of the gallant south/The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,/Then the sudden smell of burning flesh."
^The number of species in the genus Magnolia depends on the taxonomic view that one takes up. Recent molecular and morphological research shows that former genera Talauma, Dugandiodendron, Manglietia, Michelia, Elmerrillia, Kmeria, Parakmeria, Pachylarnax (and a small number of monospecific genera) all belong within the same genus, Magnolia s.l. (s.l. = sensu lato: 'in a broad sense', as opposed to s.s. = sensu stricto: 'in a narrow sense'). The genus Magnolia s.s. contains about 120 species. See the section Nomenclature and classification in this article.
^Crane, P.R. (1988), The phylogenetic position and fossil history of the Magnoliaceae. in: Hunt, D. (ed.), Magnolias and their allies (Milbourne Port): 21.
^Plumier, C. (1703) Nova plantarum Americanarum genera. Paris. [New genera of American plants].
^Dillenius, J.J. (1732), Hortus Elthamensis, seu plantarum rariorum quas in horto suo Elthami in Cantio coluit vir ornamentissimus et praestantissimus Jacobus Sherard. London [The garden of Eltham, or rather about the rare plants that the most distinguished and prominent man Jacob Sherard grows in his garden in Eltham in Kent].
^Catesby, M. (1730), The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects and plants, Vol. 1. London.
^Lamarck, J.B.P.A. de (1786), Encyclopédie Méthodique Botanique, tome second: 127. Paris.
^Under the rule of priority, the first name that is validly published in Linnaeus' Species plantarum (1 May 1753) or any other work of any other botanist after that, takes precedence over later names. Plumier's name was not a binomen and moreover published before Species plantarum, so it has no status. The first binomen that was published after 1753 was Lamarck's Annona dodecapetala (1786). Magnolia plumieri (1788) was published on a later date by Schwartz, and is treated as a later synonym, as are Magnolia fatiscens (1817; Richard), Talauma caerulea (Jaume St-Hilaire 1805) and Magnolia linguifolia (1822).
^Magnolia glauca has the same type specimen as Magnolia virginiana and as the latter is the first valid name, the species is now called Magnolia virginiana (Sweetbay magnolia). Var. fœtida was renamed Magnolia grandiflora, which is legitimate as the epithet fœtida only has priority in its rank of variety. Magnolia grandiflora is the Southern magnolia. Magnolia tripetala (Umbrella magnolia) and Magnolia acuminata (Cucumber tree) are still recognized as species.
^Under these names the species were described by Desrousseaux in Lamarck's Encyclopédie Méthodique Botanique, tome troisieme (1792): 675. In the beginning of the 20th century, descriptions which seemed to represent the same species, were found in a work of the French naturalist P.J. Buc'hoz, Plantes nouvellement découvertes (1779), under the names Lassonia heptapeta and Lassonia quinquepeta. In 1934, the English botanist J.E. Dandy argued that these names had priority over the names by which both species had been known for over a century and hence from then on Magnolia denudata had to be named Magnolia heptapeta, Magnolia liliiflora should be changed into Magnolia quinquepeta. After a lengthy debate, specialist taxonomists decided that the Buc'hoz names were based on chimaeras (pictures constructed of elements of different species), and as Buc'hoz did not cite or preserve herbarium specimens, his names were ruled not to be acceptable.
^These species were published as Liriodendron coco and Liriodendron figo by J. de Loureiro in Flora Cochinchinensis (1790) and later (1817) transferred to Magnolia by A. P. de Candolle. Magnolia figo was soon after transferred to the genus Michelia.
^Magnolia kobus only received its name in 1814, when it was validly published by A.P. de Candolle. There has been much confusion about earlier attempts to validly publish this species, especially because descriptions and type specimens did not match.
^In 1927 J.E. Dandy accepted 10 genera in The genera of Magnoliaceae, Kew Bulletin 1927: 257-264. In 1984 Law Yuh-Wu proposed 15 in A preliminary study on the taxonomy of the family Magnoliaceae, Acta Phytotaxonomica Sinica 22: 89-109; in 2004 even 16, in Magnolias of China. This is not just about grouping some genera together where others do not; authors often choose different boundaries.
^Azuma, H., L.B. Thien & S. Kawano (1999), Molecular phylogeny of Magnolia (Magnoliaceae) inferred from cpDNA sequences and evolutionary divergence of the floral scents. Journal of Plant Research 112(1107): 291-306.
^Azuma, H., García-Franco, J.G., Rico-Gray, V., and Thien, L.B. (2001). Molecular phylogeny of the Magnoliaceae: the biogeography of tropical and temperate disjunctions. American Journal of Botany. 88: 2275-2285.
^Kim, S. et al. (2001), Phylogenetic relationships in family Magnoliaceae inferred from ndhF sequences. American Journal of Botany. 88(4): 717-728.
^Figlar, R.B. (2000), Proleptic branch initiation in Michelia and Magnolia subgenus Yulania provides basis for combinations in subfamily Magnolioideae. In: Liu Yu-hu et al., Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Family Magnoliaceae: 14-25, Science Press, Beijing.
^Often treated as a distinct species, Magnolia pyramidata.
^Often treated as a distinct species, Magnolia ashei.
^Often treated as a distinct species, Magnolia dealbata.
^Han H., Jung J.K., Han S.B., Nam S.Y., Oh K.W., Hong J.T. (2011). "Anxiolytic-like effects of 4-O-methylhonokiol isolated from magnolia officinalis through enhancement of GABAergic transmission and chloride influx". Journal of Medicinal Food14 (7–8): 724–731. doi:10.1089/jmf.2010.1111. PMID21501091.
^Kalman D.S., Feldman S., Feldman R., Schwartz H.I., Krieger D.R., Garrison R. (2008). "Effect of a proprietary Magnolia and Phellodendron extract on stress levels in healthy women: A pilot, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial". Nutrition Journal7 (1): 11. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-7-11.
^Ma L., Chen J., Wang X., Liang X., Luo Y., Zhu W., Wang T., Peng M., Li S., Jie S., Peng A., Wei Y., Chen L. (2011). "Structural modification of honokiol, a biphenyl occurring in magnolia officinalis: The evaluation of honokiol analogues as inhibitors of angiogenesis and for their cytotoxicity and structure-activity relationship". Journal of Medicinal Chemistry54 (19): 6469–6481. doi:10.1021/jm200830u. PMID21853991.