RIGHT IN OUR BACKYARD: Cherry and Magnolia Lead the Blossom Parade

Over the years I’ve written several articles about cherry trees. But my focus was the fruit, not the flowers. 

Published May 15, 2015 7:53 PM
3 min read


Right-in-thOver the years I’ve written several articles about cherry trees. But my focus was the fruit, not the flowers. 

By Bill Lawyer

Right-in-BackyardOver the years I’ve written several articles about cherry trees. But my focus was the fruit, not the flowers.  

Cherries — both the “sweet” and “sour” varieties — are, in my mind, the perfect fruit.  They’re easy to eat, sort of the fruit version of popcorn. And they’re delicious as is, or baked in desserts, added to salads, or eaten with ice cream. (Vanilla ice cream must have been invented to eat with cherries.)

But as this past winter finally began to wind down in early April, I was able to put off my anticipation of cherry (eating) season and focus on the blooms at hand.  

All around my neighborhood I noticed that the first trees to blossom in a big way were the cherries and magnolias. On some streets, it seemed as though every yard had at least one variety of cherry or another in blossom. And almost as many had a magnolia as well.

We take blossoming cherry trees for granted, but for at least a thousand years they were limited to the temperate regions of eastern Asia. Along with other trees in the same family as peaches, apples and almonds, they were brought to North America by settlers from Europe.  

The reality of cherry blossoms is that the trees were husbanded and cultivated to generate varieties that do not produce fruit. Some of the most beautiful, diaphanous blossoms are found on the weeping varieties, where the petals form a spherical cloud.  

Scholars have verified that as early as the 3rd century A.D. the Japanese had cultivated profusely flowering cherry trees that were the subject of festivals and religious ceremonies. In Khoon Choy Lee’s “Japan—between Myth and Reality” (1995), the author says that the profusion of cherry blossoms symbolized the clouds of heaven, as well as an “enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life.”  

As for magnolia blossoms, until recently (because of global warming) the exotically scented, evergreen southern magnolias could not survive in Rye’s winter climate.  

The first scientifically named and classified evergreen magnolias were brought to France from the Caribbean in the early 18th century. The name “magnolia” was given in honor of French botanist Pierre Magnol, the father of plant classification based on the similarity of physical characteristics.  
Eventually, temperate climate plants from China and other parts of Asia, despite having similar flowers, were determined to be in a separate sub genus from the southern, evergreen varieties.

But they still have the common name “magnolia.”  

Most people have planted other, deciduous varieties that are not bothered by winters such as this past year’s. Two varieties that include numerous “cultivars” (cultivated variations to produce particular features) are star and saucer magnolias.  

According to the Magnolia Society, species of magnolia are most commonly listed under three subgenera, 12 sections, and 13 subsections. They can range in color from white to pink, purple, and even yellow. The star and saucer magnolias, with light to medium pink flowers, begin blooming in Rye in synchronicity with the more delicate cherry blossoms.  

As the Arbor Day Foundation puts it, magnolias’ “stunning early spring blossoms have been said to open like a thousand porcelain goblets.”

Along with the beauty of their flowers, some deciduous varieties of magnolias have other value. According to the environmental studies department of Lake Forest College, the fruit is elongated, 1 to 3 inches long; they appear in August and have small, pointed, red or dark pink colored seeds. The fruit is considered to be very attractive to the birds and causes a minor amount of litter.

Fortunately, we did not have any serious post-winter freezes, as frigid temperatures can cause the blossoms to turn black and fall off, particularly the magnolias.  

Since the blossoms are so ephemeral, I would recommend taking photos now, so that next winter you can remember what you have to look forward to in April.

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